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Teach Social Entrepreneurship to Engineers with a High-Stakes Overseas Project

By having them help a community in need, this professor teaches would-be entrepreneurs what it takes to succeed in the business world.

Educator

Michael B. Timmons, PhD

Professor of Biological and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University

PhD, MS, and BS in Agricultural Engineering

There is a certain spirit you find in all entrepreneurs. It combines a love of risk, a sense of adventure, and an ongoing pursuit of ideas. These criteria can also make for a highly innovative and effective educator, and Michael Timmons, PhD, is living proof.

Timmons is a professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University, which is known for attracting entrepreneurs—on both sides of the lectern. He is also an avid entrepreneur himself.

Over the course of his career, he has founded and led five startups, including a fish company focused on tilapia, a biotech company focused on fish farming, an indoor shrimp farm, and an organic tilapia/hydroponic greens-and-tomatoes business. Since 1989, the professor has filed no fewer than 10 patents, including designs for poultry houses, egg products, and (his most avid research focus) aquaculture technologies. He has led successful efforts in obtaining funding from both angel investors and venture capitalists. He even coauthored a textbook called The Entrepreneurial Engineer: How to Create Value from Ideas, which forms the basis of a course called Entrepreneurial Management for Engineers, which he has co-taught since 2002.

Though the book sprang from Timmons’s own early experiences in entrepreneurship, he soon discovered that many of the students entering his classroom were beginning with less business acumen than he had when he launched his first business.

In short: Though his students were certainly brimming with the spirit of entrepreneurship, they lacked the basic skills necessary to succeed in the business world. So he embarked upon a new adventure: cultivating these skills by refining his curriculum.

Challenge: Would-be entrepreneurs with talent, not business savvy

Timmons describes the students who take his course as “mostly seniors, 99% engineers, with lots of raw talent and minimal to no real-world experience.” Timmons says that many of his students struggle with the fact that this course is not dominated by mathematics—their favorite “language.” The insight they need, he says, is that, to be successful, engineers must also be able to speak the language of the business community.

In other words, students enter his classroom with little knowledge of business or marketing. They have never conducted market research, and they have limited ability to share their ideas in writing or presentations. They definitely have never been exposed to matters of business etiquette ranging from how to lead a meeting to how to behave during a dinner with investors or clients. Further, they are relatively unaware of how they can use their abilities to effect positive social change.

Yet Timmons estimates that 95% of his students will be employed in the business sector within five years of graduation—so they will need these professional skills if they are going to succeed and make a difference.

So he asked himself, “How can I help these students cross over to this other world?”

Innovation: Create a real business—with serious stakes

Timmons’s course includes guidance, instruction, and practical lessons for the prospective entrepreneur. At first, the course focused on individual projects made up of teams of four or five students, but recently Timmons transitioned the assignment toward social entrepreneurship, based on students’ interests (to help those less fortunate) and his own desire to engage students in work that would inspire them.

“I was [looking for] the opportunity to do something real,” he says.

The answer presented itself in 2016, when Timmons was discussing his dilemma with a few colleagues. His co-teacher in the entrepreneurship class, Rick Evans, PhD, mentioned the Engaged Cornell grants program, which offers funds to students, faculty, and staff for spearheading community development projects. As Timmons heard more about the program, a light bulb went on.

“I knew about Chile’s long-standing success in aquaculture and business development through the Fundación Chile,” he says. “I had a good contact there, so I discussed the opportunity for aquaponics and social needs related to orphans in Chile.” (Aquaponics, he explains, is a symbiotic system that involves the raising of aquatic animals and the cultivation of plants using the same water source, where all nutrients for the plants are provided by the fish.)

Timmons’s contact introduced him to the SOS Children’s Villages, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) dedicated to the care and empowerment of orphaned and abandoned children. “It turned out to be a perfect fit,” he says.

He and Evans reframed the course to require students to create a business plan for a functioning aquaponics system that would provide water and food—and potentially some modest measure of economic independence—for a village community in Chile.

At the end of the course, the students pitch their plans to angel investors and write grants to submit to targeted foundations that embrace the same principles of sustainability and human development.

Context

“This course gives students the fundamental principles [they] need to command in order to maximize their likelihood of success in [a future] startup venture. That includes structuring your company, fundraising, positioning and marketing, managing employees, to name a few.”

— Michael B. Timmons, PhD

Course: BEE 4890 Entrepreneurial Management for Engineers

Frequency: Two 2-hour class meetings per week for 16 weeks

Class size: 30–45

Course description: Focuses on how to start a new company centered on engineering or biological technologies. The course covers entrepreneurship principles, fundraising, negotiation, financial calculations (internal rate of return, time value of money, proforma statements); legal structures of businesses; project management; technical writing and communication. Majority of work done in teams, including a complete business plan that is presented to angel investors. Currently, the course focuses on social entrepreneurship as a way to transform institutions from dependency.… The overall goal of the course is to move the student towards being prepared to function in a professional work world.

See resources shared by Michael B. Timmons, PhD

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Lesson: The SOS Children’s Village Aquaponics Project

The syllabus for Entrepreneurial Management for Engineers explains that the primary aim of the course is to offer students an opportunity to engage in what Timmons calls “an authentic social entrepreneurial enterprise.”

That enterprise is centered on a specific project—the SOS Children’s Village Project Business Plan—which students are required to start researching and developing, starting on the first day of class.

Timmons co-teaches this course with Evans, who is also Cornell Engineering’s director of communications. Here are some strategies that the two have used to build this amazing and impactful real-world lesson.

Build the foundation

Before students can form a business plan, Timmons and Evans need to quickly provide them with some business-skills background—basically the why and how of building a startup company. The instructors cover a number of topics that might be new to their students, including:

  • How to write an effective business plan
  • How to communicate effectively in person and in writing
  • How to prepare financial statements
  • How to raise outside investment capital
  • How to understand and obtain required legal documents
  • How to build out a marketing strategy
  • How to navigate basic negotiation techniques
  • How to support employee development and retention

Evans focuses on imparting the communications skills and personal professional development, while Timmons focuses on the entrepreneurial aspects of the course.

Make market research a priority

Along with a basic understanding of how to run a business, the students must understand the needs of their customer—and that requires research. To encourage more research as early as possible in the project, Timmons and Evans have adopted these best practices:

  • Teaching in two-hour blocks. It may be counterintuitive, but Timmons says longer classes build better continuity than shorter ones.
  • Giving open-ended challenges immediately. Students are quickly given assignments that require them to research organizations or how companies market products. This prepares them for the real-world research and competitive analysis they will need to do in the future.
  • Bringing in outside speakers. This includes a sociologist and an engineering economics specialist, as well as teaching assistants who can share their real-life experiences of traveling to Chile with Timmons and Evans.
  • Communicating directly with the Chilean community. The instructors use Skype and other means of interactivity to help students feel closer to the people who will benefit from their project. In fact, they require that the student teams communicate directly with SOS Children’s Village leaders.
Separate into business teams

In the second week of class, Timmons and Evans divide the class into five teams of four to five students, and each team creates a business plan for a project for a particular Chilean SOS Village (or a village in another target SOS country). The teams are set for the semester; each team develops a contract or charter (operating agreement) for team members, and team members can be “fired” from their team for breaking the rules of the contract—but only if the dismissal is agreed upon unanimously by the remainder of the team. (A firing has only happened once in 15 years and resulted in a team fracturing into two independent teams.)

The purpose of the team contract is to help students develop an appreciation for the components of a contract, e.g., deliverables, specifications, compensation, time line, disengagement.

In Chile, In Person: One Student’s Perspective

Alexis Weaver, a former student who is now Timmons’s teaching assistant, had the chance to travel to Chile in advance of the class. Here, she shares the impact she feels that connection to Chile has made.

My first experience with the class happened the summer before it officially started, when I was invited to travel to Chile for a week with the two professors and [the] TA at the time.

We certainly made the most of our week there, as we were constantly traveling to different cities to meet with national leaders at SOS Children’s Villages; executives at Fundación Chile; and directors, mothers, and children at a number of SOS Villages themselves.

As an unofficial Spanish translator on the trip, I was able to speak to the people directly, and their passion for the children and for the SOS organization was apparent in everything they said and did. Their fierce determination to keep the children in these loving villages was a tremendous motivator for me to make this project a reality.

Because my classmates did not have the experience of going on the trip, it was my job to convey the urgency of the situation to them, and the potentially huge impact we could make as a class.

Nearly every element of the course was geared toward making this project an actual business reality. Learning a subject like economics would ordinarily have been dreadful to me personally, but putting it in the context of its importance to our tangible social entrepreneurial venture made it exciting and relevant.

The process of creating a full business plan was also a great experience, as my classmates and I gained a strong sense of both the rewards and the challenges that come with researching a market, communicating with stakeholders, and acting as accountants, among many other tasks.

Unlike nearly all of the other classes I have taken, this one stands out because we were not just learning theory for the sake of learning theory—we were learning it in the context of applying it to a real problem, which made it feel more useful and enjoyable.

Expect real results—and positive change

To complete the project, each team is expected to generate a fully actionable business plan for the target community, and they must document all cooperative and collaborative teamwork. This includes generating planning and management documents, work logs, policy statements, and financial analyses.

At this point, Timmons says he often sees the lightbulb go on for students.

“That happens about halfway through the course when they start to realize this isn’t just a school class,” he says. “This is real. It’s a real project with real people that will do real good, with real money at stake and a real business that’s launching at the end of it if they raise the money.”

Share on a bigger stage

Teams give presentations both within the class and to their community partners at Fundación Chile through ZOOM, or they develop written proposals for targeted foundations. Students also construct (or update) a blog that describes the project. Each business plan details a specific idea for a viable aquaponics system for a particular market.

The pitch includes those details as well as information on when and how revenue from the system could lessen and even potentially eliminate the SOS Village’s dependency on the governmental contributions and other donations they currently receive.

The students’ grades are partly dependent on the quality of these presentations and their final written business plans. “The student teams create a very comprehensive ePortfolio to showcase results and learning experiences,” Timmons notes. He has shared two, one for a project aimed at an SOS Children’s Village in Santiago and another that would target the port city of Antofagasta.

Complications

Teachers, take heed: This is not an easy direction to explore.

“We faced red tape getting to launch this course, given the reality-based aspects of a project like this,” Timmons says. “We had two outside entities that were going to be working with [Cornell] to raise money, and whenever money is involved it raises the stakes and concerns.”

Timmons had to create a memorandum of understanding document between Cornell, SOS Children’s Villages USA, and Fundación Chile. That process took several months.

“Everyone acted in good faith,” he says. “But when you’re doing something different, you face hurdles like this.”

Outcomes

Timmons says that students are surprised by how engaged they become and how much ownership they take in the goal of helping the SOS Village become more self-sufficient.

“They realize these are not imaginary orphans in Santiago,” he says. “That reality makes a huge difference in keeping the students motivated.”

And the project continues to move forward. “We have currently raised $40,000 toward the required goal of $100K to launch the alpha site,” says Timmons. “Fundación Chile has recently stepped up even more than they had, and they are now focusing on raising the additional funds. We fully expect now that the alpha site in Puerto Varas will be up and running in the next six months.”

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