June 4, 2021

Launching Tarrant County College Students on a Path Toward Entrepreneurship

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By: Sarah Williamson

 

Lourdes Ramboa is the Faculty and Chair for the Business and Entrepreneurship Programs at Tarrant County College, with 60,000 students at campuses across the Fort Worth area in Texas. With nearly 250 students this year, the college’s Entrepreneurship Program is one of the largest of its kind in the United States—and Ramboa is justifiably proud of its success.

But if she could slip away from the “Business” connection, she would do it in a heartbeat. “Entrepreneurship is not a business-specific degree or program; it serves anybody in any discipline,” Ramboa explained. She has students studying in the culinary program, the HVAC program, the horticulture program, the dietitian program, and the auto mechanic program – because they all want to start their own gig.

Expanding the Entrepreneurial Mindset Beyond ‘Business’

Tarrant County College has a very diverse student body, with about 30 percent Black and 40 precent Hispanic students. The majority are from socioeconomic backgrounds where every dollar counts. And, many of them have never even met anyone who owns a business of any size.

Ramboa estimates that the average age of students in the Entrepreneurship Program is 26. For many, it’s a pathway to a second career. “We get a good mix of students straight out of high school, those who’ve been in the workforce a few years, and people in their late 40s, 50s and early 60s who are coming back to school,” she said.

Regardless of their age, few if any of the students have been exposed to the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative’s definition of entrepreneurship as the self-directed pursuit of opportunities to create value for others. It’s a revelation to them that by creating value for others, they can empower themselves.

“In our first course, Entrepreneurial Mindset, one of the first reflections asks, ‘What is your biggest obstacle?’ and usually the response is that they don’t have money or mentors. By the time we get to the capstone course, they’re talking about the business model that will work and how they’re going to create prototypes. Their mindset is much different,” Ramboa says. “I’ve seen that progression over and over again.”

Ramboa said students in the introductory Entrepreneurial Mindset course love the Ice House model because it reinforces positive behaviors and speaks to them about the possibility of making their ideas happen. Even those who don’t stay in the program after that initial course often utilize the Ice House lessons in more traditional work environments.

Students who continue in the program will encounter Ice House themes woven throughout. For example, one of the courses Ramboa teaches is Entrepreneurship and Economic Development. It first focuses on economic models but then explores what role entrepreneurs – including social entrepreneurs – serve within a community.

“Entrepreneurship is truly the engine that sparks the growth in any community,” she said. “And this younger generation loves, loves, loves the impact that social entrepreneurs make.”

Broadening Students’ Perceptions of Their Assets

“One challenge I often hear is that students think entrepreneurship is a quick game,” Ramboa said. “They think they will put all the pieces together and their idea will work. But the last lesson in the Ice House book is persistence. I reiterate that lesson again. You have to keep going even when you don’t feel like it. Get comfortable with it.”

In addition to challenging their notions of their own internal assets, she encourages them to think differently about their mentors too. “One of the last assignments asks for the six people who will carry their business, their six most important people. By then, they understand that each can meet a different role.” One person might serve as an emotional supporter, another as a financially savvy advisor, an entrepreneurial cheerleader, a jump-starter when the hit a roadblock, an experienced industry expert, or a person who loves the product and advocates to open doors for it.

“When they begin to think of mentors differently, it opens up the possibilities,” Ramboa said. “By the time they get to the capstone course, they are approaching industries with an awareness of who they can tap into.” During that course, Ramboa challenges her students to continue to push themselves. Call five additional contacts, she tells them. Line up five more interviews.

Students who go through the full Entrepreneurship Program tell Ramboa they have learned the importance of the Ice House lesson about protecting their personal brand by responding rather than reacting when they are shot down – especially when they are upset. They’ve also internalized the lesson that their financial limitations are not a valid reason not to pursue their opportunities.

“By the time we get to the capstone course, they talk differently about those situations,” Ramboa said. “Their mindsets have really shifted.”

The Future of Entrepreneurship After COVID

“If we look at history, entrepreneurship always grows when there’s crises,” Ramboa said. “If we look at 2008, we saw significant growth in entrepreneurship and startups. We’re seeing the same kind of growth this time.”

For people who have lost their jobs and have an entrepreneurial idea in mind, crises can be an opportunity. And perhaps that’s why Tarrant County College’s Entrepreneurship Program is growing as the COVID pandemic winds down. The program averages 200 students per year; it’s now at 225 to 250 students.

Ramboa said about 200 students have completed the Entrepreneurship Program since it started in the fall of 2019. Only a handful have launched their businesses in the past year, but that’s largely because of the pandemic. She expects a continued uptick in business startups as well as program enrollment.

She’s very optimistic about the future of entrepreneurship education at the secondary and elementary levels as well. “I work with Junior Achievement’s Company Program, where high schoolers go from startup to exit every year,” Ramboa said. “JA sends 12 teams to its national competition, and the high school I work with has sent a team every year for the past five years. I love the fact that they are so curious about solving problems, and the program taps into that curiosity.”

But she has the same hope for young students as she does for her college ones: that entrepreneurship will start to be perceived as having benefits beyond business. “In Texas, as an eighth-grader, students have to decide their path. Well, what the heck do you know in eighth grade?” Ramboa asked. “We haven’t even given students a skill set to understand what that means, yet we’re asking them to make decisions about the next eight years of their lives.”

Her message to students is clear: “We need to tell them that entrepreneurship is a path – and not a business path. It’s a path of knowledge.”

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