Students gain hands on entrepreneurial experience


The first cohort of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Academy photographed during a meeting time in the Student Innovation Center while learning about the logistics of financing a business.

Jack Mcclellan

Iowa State’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Academy is working with its first cohort of students to come up with business ideas and get them off the ground.

The program is a two-year academy intended to help students develop the tools and ideas necessary to start and run their own businesses. The Academy helps to supplement students’ paths through the world of entrepreneurship while receiving one credit hour per semester enrolled in the academy.

In their first year, students have been focusing on skill development: leadership skills, networking, financing, risk analysis and human resources. Some students came into the course with a business idea in mind, some with a business in motion and others came in simply knowing they had an interest in innovation entrepreneurship.

“Some students start a business as a result of the academy,” said Rebecca Runyon, director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Academy. “I have other students who are working on a club… And then there are some who are learning to be innovative within existing companies. So there’s truly a pathway for everybody.”

According to Runyon, as the first cohort’s skill development continues, their ideas for their businesses become more realistic. Throughout the academy, Runyon highlights the many resources available to young entrepreneurs from the Papajohn’s Center for Entrepreneurship to the many Small Business Development Centers.

Much of students’ entrepreneurial growth is focused outside of the classroom. Students receive credit for attending events with experienced business owners or innovators and are encouraged to participate in anything that will build their knowledge or experience as entrepreneurs.

“So the academy is meant to be an experiential learning experience,” Runyon said. “And so students, I would say, are gaining the tools in class, but then you learn so much more when you really apply them.” 

Runyon pointed out that the students who spent the most time outside of class working on their ideas and their entrepreneurial capacity are the ones who’ve made the most progress. 

“Just like anything in life, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it,” Runyon said. “And so the students who have made the most progress are the ones who are really going above and beyond to seek out those resources and make the most of the experience.”

Students have become more comfortable with their ideas since they started the Academy last fall. According to Runyon, much of the progress is rooted in communication skills; whether it be talking to potential customers or sharing their business in a pitch competition, talking about their ideas allows students to think more practically when making decisions concerning their ideas.

As students move on to year two of the Academy, the format will change from a weekly meeting to a monthly one-on-one meeting with an industry mentor. These meetings will be supplemented by meetings with members of the class to discuss progress and build accountability.

“Starting a business in college is so hard and like one of those things that people don’t realize how hard it is, and there’s a really small group of people doing it,” said Madaline Ladehoff, a junior at Iowa State majoring in entrepreneurship and assistant to Runyon. “So like having just the support system of people who are also like doing on a similar path as you and going through similar experiences is super helpful.”

One student, Sundar Shivraj, a junior in computer science, is working with a group to start an organization on campus intended to improve mental health resources. Shivraj shared some of his experience in the academy and with the idea his group is working on.

“We had a final project where we had to kind of come up with an idea that we were all kind of like really passionate about and then identify a problem within that and then identify a solution for that,” Shivraj said. “And we decided the idea that we had was to push for advocation for mental health and to improve resources on campus for mental health.”

As Shivraj moved on to the second semester of the Academy, the focus shifted from the idea creation aspect to focus more on the logistics of bringing an idea into reality.

“It’s taught me that like, I am more confident and I am more independent than I realize, and I’m capable of so much more with this,” Shivraj said. “No idea is a bad idea. Unless you yourself deem it as one.

While some students have been working on ideas that came about because of the Academy, some others came in with a business already up and running. Jassma’ray Johnson, a senior majoring in psychology, started her lipgloss line from her dorm room before ever enrolling in the academy.

“So I’ve met a lot of good people and a lot of good networking through this program,” Johnson said. “I also learned how to navigate my social media better. So like with the networking that comes with a lot of followers that comes with a lot of marketing.”

As Johnson points out, much of her own growth through the program has had to do with reaching out and connecting with customers. This capacity for communication and creating connections is a necessity for most entrepreneurial ventures.

Johnson also points out the variety of opportunities she has been exposed to through the class. She points to the College by College Pitch Off which Johnson recently won $5,000 at for her existing business idea.

“Even Cy-Starters is something I’m about to apply for that is pushed in this class,” Johnson said. “So just like the opportunities Iowa State has that people don’t oftentimes know about and like the money and funds that they’re willing to give out to support you, I don’t think that’s like showcased and Barack has to do enough.”

As the first cohort of the Academy finishes its first year, Runyon will begin looking to recruit members for its next cohort. Individuals interested in applying to be a part of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Academy can follow this link to the Liberal Arts and Sciences’ website.

“I just want it to be known that we’re recruiting a diverse cohort and so any student who is even curious or interested in innovation and entrepreneurship should apply,” Runyon said. “You don’t have to have a concrete idea yet sign up for the Academy. The goal is to help you learn the process for you could use it down the road for starting something later in life. Or come to realize that oh, there’s this issue that I want to address right now.”