Infusing a Small-Business Focus at a Self-Described Entrepreneurial University
Location: Denver, Colorado
Number of undergraduate students: 16,400
Average age: 25
Percent who work while pursuing their education: 80%
Number of majors: 90+
Number of certificate programs: 40
Center for Entrepreneurship established: 2020
One of the words that the Metropolitan State University of Denver uses to describe itself on its website is entrepreneurial: “We don’t settle for walking well-worn trails. We reimagine what is possible for ourselves and our communities.” The school lives up to this in many ways. It accepts a wide diversity of students and offers 90-plus majors and 40 certificate programs. Entrepreneurship is included as a major and minor, a certificate program, and an emphasis within the business management degree program.
“MSU Denver is a very unique university,” said Assistant Professor of Management Adam Melnick. Melnick teaches classes in small business entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship feasibility, and business plan writing. “We have a huge proportion of students of color, students experiencing disabilities, veterans, low-income students, first-generation college students, and those who are at college for the second time.”
Employers know MSU Denver students are hard-working, motivated individuals whose life experiences have not always been easy, Melnick said. For example, the student who won the business plan competition this past year was working two jobs and taking eight classes. This reputation helps students land jobs in their chosen career fields—and supports the university land partners.
STRENGTHENING THE SMALL BUSINESS PERSPECTIVE:
While many universities promote large-scale entrepreneurship that might attract equity investors or venture capital, MSU Denver is different. Its students are more likely to pursue businesses with smaller start-up costs like barbering equipment or a food truck. “They’re often looking to start an African grocery store in their community or a lifestyle business that’s going to support their family,” Melnick explained.
Prior to coming to MSU Denver in 2020, Melnick completed ELI’s Entrepreneurial Mindset Certification Training in 2013, when he worked for the nonprofit economic development lender Colorado Lending Source. He trained around 150 people using the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program over the course of 7 years. “Until coming to MSU Denver, it was easily the most fulfilling thing that I did in my professional career,” he said.
Melnick’s initial connection with MSU Denver came about through his Ice House facilitation. During one of the many trainings the university hosted, he met Lynn Hoffman, the just-retired director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, which opened in 2020. Melnick became a guest lecturer and eventually applied for an instructor position.
In his courses, Melnick incorporates ELI content along with exercises he developed. For example, one of them asks students to think about the 5 people closest to them and use up or down arrows to indicate if they are sources of support or barriers. He then asks his students, “If you have more down arrows than up arrows, how can you recruit new people to your support network?”
Exercises like this reinforce students’ sense that they have control over their choices. “Successful entrepreneurship is not luck,” Melnick pointed out. “It’s having an awareness of opportunities and being willing to pursue them.”
The other words MSU Denver uses to describe itself online could apply just as easily to its students and entrepreneurs: diverse, tenacious, primed, and purposeful. But those characteristics don’t necessarily guarantee that they will be successful when it comes to launching a small business.
“I believe Denver is one of the best places in the country to start a business,” Melnick said. “It’s an incredibly supportive place for business owners. But communities of color don’t always have knowledge of or access to those resources.” He sees his role as helping the university—and the Center for Entrepreneurship in particular—bridge that gap. “Because of who we are in the community, we have a level of trust that a lot of entities don’t have,” he said. “Therefore, MSU Denver can be a hub to help people access entrepreneurial resources.”
He’s excited about other not-yet-announced programs the university and its partners are working on to better support students and alumni in their entrepreneurial pursuits. “It’s another example of the importance of bringing a small business entrepreneurship mindset to the university—which I wouldn’t have had without ELI,” Melnick said.