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Member News: C.C. Eship / NACCE Journal Spring/Summer 2010

The Lifeline of Entrepreneurship Education

Thursday, April 22, 2010   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Matthew Montoya
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By Ronald E. Thomas, Ph.D.

President, Dakota County Technical College, Rosemount, MN

Conventional thinkingpaints entrepreneurs as individuals equipped with a high tolerance for risk. That same thinking points to the successful entrepreneur as a business-minded independent who not only recognizes a previously unseen opportunity, but also has the know-how and vision to make that opportunity unfold and flourish in the marketplace.

From the standpoint of entrepreneurship education, the difference between an entrepreneur scaling new summits with a flag or hitting bottom with a shovel is a powerful bundle of skills and knowledge. When delivered with dedication and a strong grasp of real-world conditions, that bundle is the entrepreneur’s lifeline to success.

I recently took part in a grant signing ceremony that brought home the concept of entrepreneurial education as a lifeline. The event kicked off a $300,000 training grant from the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership (MJSP) to our college, which is teaming up with Capital Safety–the world leader in the design and manufacture of height safety and fall protection equipment–to deliver critical training programs to employees at the company’s state-of-the-science production and testing facility in Red Wing, MN.

True Workforce Engagement

During the course of my career as an educator, I have participated in my share of grant signing ceremonies. All are happy occasions, but many are simply formal announcements populated by the designated signatories, a smattering of guests, a photographer or two, and perhaps a representative from area media.

The event at Capital Safety raised the bar for workforce engagement. I arrived at the signing site with an ample college contingent–one vice president, two deans, two customized training directors and one communications coordinator. We quickly found ourselves outnumbered by more than 350 Capital Safety employees, who had gathered to celebrate the grant.

Capital Safety-Americas President David Thomas, MJSP Director Paul Moe and Red Wing Mayor John Howe mirrored my duties as a signatory. They, along with the DCTC contingent, picked up on the positive energy emanating from the assembled workers, who listened, attentive and smiling, as their president reviewed the company’s superb performance over the past year before describing the DCTC training programs that would augment the skill range of every employee present, streamlining career pathways in such areas as wind energy, mechatronics, green manufacturing, supervisory management and advanced computer training.

It’s no secret that entrepreneurial thinking goes well beyond the lone enterpriser making the grueling ascent to prosperity through the force of a brave, new idea. The revitalizing boons of intrapreneurship can serve as the lifeblood of the largest and most mature corporations, institutions and concerns. At Capital Safety, entrepreneurial attitudes permeate all aspects of the organization. Suggestion boxes at the Red Wing facility generate more than 100 innovative ideas and observations a week. Championed by every contributor to the Capital Safety mission, which centers on saving lives around the world in the transportation, oil and gas, construction, utilities, and wind energy industries, the quest for improved quality and efficiency never stops, evidenced by a creative progression that notches more patents than any other company in the fall protection field.

Capital’s management team includes shop-floor workers in the decision-making process, fostering a workforce that cares deeply about manufacturing the best fall protection equipment possible. They live and breathe the company motto: "Build safe so that they stay safe.”

Three Key Lessons

As two-year colleges across the nation continue to expand entrepreneurship programs, we as administrators can garner three key lessons from the business culture at Capital Safety. First, we should remember that many major companies, including Fortune 500 juggernauts like Apple, Nordstrom, eBay and Electronic Data Systems, started organically from humble entrepreneurial blueprints. Capital itself originated 60 years ago in Sala, Sweden, when the company’s founders introduced the world’s first self-retracting lifeline for use by workers in local silver mines.

Second, we have to understand that teaching entrepreneurship is more than just delivering a smart and relevant curriculum. In every institutional undertaking, we must think and act as highly capable entrepreneurs, constantly searching for new opportunities, purposeful innovations and mutually constructive partnerships. How can we teach effective risk management unless we ourselves are both experienced and accomplished at taking bold yet intelligent risks?

Third, we need to emulate Capital Safety’s commitment to quality, which is founded on the straightforward aspiration to save lives. After the signing ceremony, we took a tour of the facility, ending at a large wall map dotted with flags indicating workers whose lives were saved by Capital Safety products. Entrepreneurs might not be construction workers treading the high steel of 100-story skyscrapers, but they often put their livelihoods on the line pursuing ideas that can take them to dizzying heights.

When delivering entrepreneurship education, we need to develop programs that reduce risk by providing start-to-finish support. We need to live and breathe our mission of educating savvy and agile entrepreneurs. We need to build safe so that they stay safe.

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