BUS 495: Social Venture Accelerator
Subject and level
400-level business course (Social Entrepreneurship—counts toward Entrepreneurship and Innovation concentration for business students and elective credits for all others). Prerequisites are typically 60 credit hours and 2.67 GPA, although business students must also have BUS 360 (Business Communications).
Enrollment is 15–30 undergraduate students, and students must apply for entry. The course is taught annually during summer intersession (a six-week term from early May to mid-June) and has turned away applicants each year because of high demand. In 2012 we accepted 10 teams and 32 students; in 2013, we had six teams and 16 students. We expect eight teams and approximately 20 students for 2014. Although the Social Venture Accelerator (SVA) class is a 400-level business course, it is open to the best social venture ideas and senior-level teams from across SFU.
The SVA course is stewarded by RADIUS (RADical Ideas, Useful to Society), the social innovation lab and venture incubator co-founded and directed by Shawn Smith and housed at the Beedie School of Business. RADIUS is focused on three pillars of activity:
- Community (building a culture and community of social innovation connected to SFU)
- Innovation (creating opportunities for deep learning and new ideas to tackle wicked social problems)
- Ventures (providing support for the development of social ventures in BC).
This course hits all three pillars by raising the profile of social innovation and entrepreneurship on campus, supporting nascent ideas and innovators, and providing a pipeline of potential ideas for RADIUS Ventures support programming.
Our primary motivation for this course was the recognition that although students across the university were coming up with truly creative ideas to tackle pressing social and environmental challenges, virtually none of these ideas were moving beyond the safe confines of the classroom. In the interest of turning out a generation capable of tackling the challenges of their time, we took on the mission of activating the best impact-focused teams and ideas from across SFU, providing a bridge between the university and the real world.
This generation faces an unprecedented set of interconnected and accelerating global challenges. We want more teams to take the leap of testing their ideas against the reality of the marketplace for several reasons:
- Some of these ideas have the potential to make a real difference and, if successful, to be replicated or scaled to contribute to a more sustainable future.
- Entrepreneurship is best, and perhaps only, learned by doing; if we desire to create leaders with the skills to create new ideas for the future, we must facilitate opportunities for them to practice.
- The most powerful outcome of our work is the igniting of a sense of agency, and with this a sense of responsibility, in our students. Once the awareness of their ability to shift the world around them for the better is turned on, it is very difficult to turn off.
How Does It Work?
The SVA is a hands-on, intense, real-world experience. Since admission to the program is by application, self-selected participants are highly driven to do whatever it takes to launch the idea they are working on. Our work is to provide the “Enrolling in the Social Enterprise Accelerator was the best decision I ever made at SFU. I learned more in the last 3 months than I did in 6 years at SFU/coop.” support, guidance, knowledge and extra push required to make sure they get there.
Over 6.5 weeks, students read or watch curriculum focused on “lean” approaches to startup development and social impact, using the Business Model Canvas, a tool to map and describe business models and key assumptions, as a backbone. We move through different blocks of the canvas each week, refining and developing each team’s idea based on real market feedback.
Students must apply for entrance with a letter of interest and a copy of their academic transcript. Brief follow-up interviews are conducted in most cases. We largely wish to understand the potential of the idea proposed, its alignment with the goals and intensity of the program, and the commitment of the team to execute on their idea. Students must have a team of at least two to enter the program.
We use a mentor-driven blended learning model in which most content is delivered through online video and readings so that we can spend class time working through exercises, discussions or working sessions to help teams advance their ideas. Exercises might include activities like crafting team agreements, developing a competitive matrix to share with the class, or posting and presenting your business model.
1. Mentors: Each team has a volunteer mentor, drawn from the networks of the instructor, who is familiar with the team’s market or idea and meets with the members at least once a week for six weeks. Mentors are typically entrepreneurs or professionals with an interest in working with students, and although the commitment is significant, most meetings happen at the convenience of the mentor. Each team is also matched with another team, assigned as their peer mentorship group to enable more focused breakout activities and iterative feedback sessions between teams.
2. Weekly schedule
The class meets for three hours twice a week. The first session each week is tightly choreographed:
- Each team gives a very short “lessons learned” presentation on their development for the week and gets feedback from the instructor, advisors who may be in the room, and peers.
- An expert speaker gives a short talk and then spends time with each team, often with other mentors or advisors also in the room to work with teams.
The second session each week is looser and more “pull-based” in that we evaluate what students in the groups seem to need each week and then craft each session shortly before it is delivered. This approach allows us to respond to perceived challenges with discussions, peer mentorship sessions and exercises designed to coax students through the next phases of development, or otherwise to provide free time to work.
3. Get out of the building: Students do the bulk of their work outside these scheduled sessions, with aggressive targets each week to talk to customers and partners and to validate or invalidate assumptions about how their business model will work. For example, teams may be asked to speak to a minimum of 15 people they think face the problem they are trying to solve and to focus exclusively on understanding the problem as experienced by the user (i.e., they are instructed not even to mention their proposed solution).
4. Pitches: Teams complete the program with a public pitch event. In 2013, their presentations took place in front of over 100 attendees. A sponsor (Vancity Credit Union) provides prize funding, and the top three teams take home $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 respectively. Teams also have several opportunities to practice their pitch, or parts of it, during the term.
4. Assessment: The pitches serve as their final assignment, while other check-in assignments assess students’ understanding and application of the material and their personal journeys. These assignments have included sector reports, Business Model Canvas submissions, personal reflection essays and business model lessons-learned reports. Participation and peer review marks are also gathered to assess each student’s contribution to the course. While I assign participation marks based on my observations, student attendance, frequency and quality of participation in discussions, and perceived level of preparation, students are also asked to self-assess. They are generally very honest and sometimes even harder on themselves in their evaluations than I would be. Peers also score each other within teams and across peer mentor groups to encourage active participation on both their own and peer mentor teams and to counter potential free-rider problems.
Results to Date
To date 16 venture teams have gone through the program (10 in 2012 and six in 2013), and we have turned away a number of teams each year while seeking to find the right balance between supporting as many ideas as possible and providing a highly focused and relatively tailored experience for each team. We anticipate selecting eight teams in 2014 if submission quality remains high.
Of the 16 teams that have gone through the course, all six teams from 2013 continue to pursue their ideas, and six out of 10 teams from 2012 are still working on their ventures. The other four dropped their ideas soon after the 2012 program ended, based on evidence gathered during the course. Learning to fail quickly if an idea will not be viable is an equally important outcome.
Student reviews have been extremely positive, both in formal class evaluations and in a separate survey to gather more qualitative impact results. Some highlights from 2012:
- 90% took the course either to learn about social entrepreneurship or to launch their venture idea (very targeted intake)
- 45% rated this as their best class ever, while the other 55% highly recommended the course
- 80% rated themselves more confident/likely to become an entrepreneur (10% were already convinced coming in, and 10% decided that the role is not for them)
- 75% of students found the class pace intense, but appropriate (we push VERY hard)
Student feedback (2012 cohort)
“This was the most eye opening and enjoyable class by far I have ever taken. Social Venture Accelerator gave me the fundamental knowledge on how to be an entrepreneur.”
“It was an experience of a lifetime, that forced me to go outside my comfort zones and actually begin to put to practice all that I had learnt and been sitting on in all my years at SFU. Because of this course I feel more confident in my abilities as well as entirely revolutionizing my conception of how much I can accomplish, and essentially there are far less ‘Nos’ in my vocabulary.”
“This class was AMAZING! The instructor ensured I was able to understand all the concepts and apply them to my business, which was much needed as I knew absolutely nothing about business before taking this course.”
“Enrolling in the Social Enterprise Accelerator was the best decision I ever made at SFU. I learned more in the last 3 months than I did in 6 years at SFU/coop. You’ll learn so much about what social entrepreneurship is, how to create a positive impact, and what it takes to create and run a successful business.”
“BY FAR the best class I have ever taken at SFU. It teaches real world skills following a proven, tested system … This class is essential for any aspiring entrepreneur and even non-entrepreneurs as the skills taught in this class will carry over seamlessly to the 21st Century workplace.”
“Anybody from any faculty can flourish in entrepreneurship. I would recommend this course to anyone that has ever been curious about creating their own company after they graduate or have any interest in entrepreneurship at all.”
“The class was engaging, applicable, provided students with real life opportunity, and was totally hands-on. No one learns profoundly from simply reading a text book.”
“This class has changed my life and increased my courage and confidence to pursue my dreams.”
go2gether.ca: A ride-sharing platform that allows university students and professionals to instantly find anyone they want to ride-share with, saving time and money and reducing CO2 emissions.
ReFilamer: Building a unique desktop 3D printing filament recycling solution that creates a closed-loop production cycle, saving users money, reducing CO2, and keeping waste out of landfills.
Aspire: Creating a software testing company that employees autistic individuals for their excellence in detail-oriented, repetitive tasks.
Fusion Kitchen: Offers cultural cooking classes taught by women who are experts of the culture, building self-confidence, work experience, and income-generation opportunities for women who have recently immigrated to Canada.
Foodavinci: A dynamic recipe engine for people with multiple allergies and food restrictions, providing food substitutes, products, and recipes for unique diets.
Daycarepedia: A daycare search and rating service that provides transparency and efficiency for busy parents in an opaque and inefficient daycare market.
EnableLife: An online community and forum for the disabilities community to share life hacks as well as tips and tricks that is already attracting strong interest from organizational and individual users.
Challenges and Recommendations
Although I have been very pleased with the outcomes so far, we have had a few challenges, some of which have been addressed through adjustments, while others linger.
1. Intake: Intake problems consist on the one hand of ensuring that there is sufficient demand, given that participants must have an established idea, and on the other hand of arranging to have defined teams with ideas in place by day one of the course to allow us to immediately spring into action.
- While we have turned teams away each year, the number of applicants was significantly lower in our second year, and we have begun focusing much more on our pipeline of potential applicants: What class, faculty, advisor, student group and other partnerships do we need in order to drive a sufficient volume of interested students and exciting projects each year?
- We expect teams of at least two, but we have experimented with models that allow us to accept intact teams of two to five members with their ideas while also enabling us to connect solo entrepreneurs with ideas or solo applicants without ideas but with relevant skill sets through a matchmaking process. This approach has been reasonably successful, but it is time-consuming and fairly ad hoc. A better system for helping people find team members in order to apply would be helpful.
2. Diverse classes: With students from multiple faculties and backgrounds in the class, we do need to walk a fine line between setting a fast pace for those who are ready and creating space and time for those who need help with more basic business concepts. For the most part this diversity is not a significant issue, and the related challenges are largely ameliorated by having the instructor or mentors spend a bit of extra time with teams stuck on any particular concept. The added wealth of different perspectives, backgrounds and opinions more than makes up for the additional complexity.
3. Assessment: It is challenging to find an appropriate mix of assignments that can help move students toward launching their ventures in practical ways while also permitting assessment of their learning against course objectives. There is no time in this experience for make-work assignments or sit-down tests—students are pushed to focus 100% on getting their ventures off the ground, and assignments must support this objective. Assessments currently include:
- A sector report consisting of practical research that teams already need to do, looking at their ability to identify gaps, ask smart questions and apply the results to their thinking
- Personal reflection essays that force students to first take stock of their goals for the course as well as their biggest fears, and then to self-assess their performance against these measures at the end of the course
- Business Model Canvas submissions and lessons-learned reports that test their grasp of the core material, but also push them to use the material to advance their vision
- Pitch-based assignments that help assess students’ synthesis of concepts and help them prepare to sell their idea to supporters and customers
4. Mentor development: It takes a fair amount of work to establish relationships with reliable mentors, and the results always vary slightly across the class. The mentor relationship can be a significant factor in the success and enjoyment of the teams, but it can be very hard to predict or control, as mentors have their own lives and unexpected challenges. We originally had multiple mentors per project to ameliorate this problem, but this arrangement created extra work in the recruitment phase and also led to a lack of commitment from individual mentors. The relationships were much stronger in 2013 when there was only one dedicated mentor per team.
5. Community stress: We encountered some challenges with multiple teams approaching the same community experts or potential customers with similar questions. For example, we had two food-related ventures, and both separately approached a major local social enterprise for advice and support, leading to a complaint that we were taking up too much of its time. We’ve learned that if we are pushing students to approach the community, it is worth a small amount of time up front to compare needs and plans and broker meetings where necessary.
6. Curriculum alignment: Given that this program tries to opportunistically capture students from across the institution at a moment when they have an idea and are ready to pursue it, the challenge of fitting the course within existing concentrations and offerings at the business school is daunting. While Beedie has been very flexible during our experimentation with the offering, we now need to move to institutionalize it and sort out prerequisites, access for non-business students and other practical questions that arise within a university. This challenge remains an open question to some extent, although the success of the program has influenced the ongoing development of curriculum plans at Beedie.
This experience has been incredibly gratifying as student after student expresses excitement and gratitude at having had such a practical exposure to the realities of pursuing their dreams and ideas. We have learned much and still have much to learn. Creating these types of experiences still requires a passionate instructor or designer willing to work at the edge of the normal boundaries of the system, but connected to it in important ways and willing to invest more time than would be devoted to an average class in order to respond to the week-to-week experiences of students in such an intensive program.
This type of experience doesn’t need to be limited to startup business ideas, and I could imagine applications for any number of projects and disciplines that involve coming up with an idea that affects a specific user group and then testing and validating this idea in the real world while retaining the backing of a classroom experience.
The course designer and instructor would be happy to discuss this experience and to respond to any questions or comments.
Shawn Smith, Lecturer, Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, firstname.lastname@example.org, 778.385.5552