The Value of an Entrepreneurial Education

By Sue McMurray

Imagine a device that could make your loved one’s cancer diagnosis less invasive or new technology that could assist a wounded veteran with lost or impaired hand function. These ideas, and more—such as new ways to grow environmentally sustainable coral and improved digital currency trading platforms—are just a sampling of student innovation supported this year by the WSU Center for Entrepreneurship, directed by Marie Mayes.

The Center for Entrepreneurship offers a diverse set of programs, such as the Business Plan Competition, the Jones Milestone Accelerator, and the Terry Sparks Program that help WSU students practice entrepreneurship to create change, improve the world, and make a difference in their lives and in the lives of others. Students also have access to a range of opportunities to explore entrepreneurial events, academic programs, clubs and organizations, scholarships, internships, and other business plan competitions.

The Center for Entrepreneurship depends on support from companies, foundations, dedicated program funding, and generous individuals to provide entrepreneurial education for students across all majors and levels.

“We rely on alumni, friends, seasoned entrepreneurs, and industry experts to enrich the educational experience of WSU students,” says Mayes. “Participation as mentors for student startup teams, Business Plan Competition judges, and financial contributors enables our team to continue the important work of preparing students to become the innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.”

Supporting the Business Plan Competition

Paws & Claws team tabling at the first Business Plan Competition Trade Show.

Keith Tiegs (’04 Agric., Hum., & Nat. Res. Sci.), owner of KT Farms LLC, and co-owner of NW Biologic, feels strongly that entrepreneurs are imperative for the future. This year, he sponsored the Best Agricultural Innovation merit prize awarded during WSU’s annual Business Plan Competition. The cash prize went to HAYTECH, the team who developed precision agricultural methods for hay bailing, saving hay producers time and money. Inspired by his agricultural background and WSU academic experience, Tiegs hopes that by encouraging and rewarding student entrepreneurial endeavors that advance agriculture, it will help raise WSU’s visibility as a critical source of insights in the industry.

“The Business Plan Competition allows students to test their thinking and models on a broad stage. I feel like this positive/negative feedback is what any entrepreneur needs,” says Tiegs. “With hard work and a little luck, their dreams can be attainable.”

The Herbert B. Jones Foundation, an organization that supports new business programs managed by post-secondary educational entities in Washington state, has for several years sponsored the Business Plan Competition’s grand prizes and merit awards for best-written plan, best presentation, best technology venture, and best social impact business. Among the 2019 winning innovations were an app that screens for autism spectrum disorders, an Airbnb model for personal boat sharing to create customizable water experiences, and a one-step, cancer diagnostic device capable of multiple detections from a human serum sample. The foundation also supports the Jones Milestone Accelerator, a six-month accelerator that provides student-led companies with coaching by a personalized team of entrepreneurship mentors, stipends to support their work, connection with WSU’s extensive network of corporate and community partners, and access to a coworking space on WSU’s campus. Upon completion of the program, teams who have met their milestones will also receive up to $10,000 in additional funding to get their ventures to the next growth stage.

“Our support stems from strong respect for the program leadership, and the intent and performance of the university programs,” says Michael Bauer, foundation director. “Entrepreneurial experience is an exceptional venue for student learning. Enriching programs such as the Business Plan Competition stimulate many to participate in entrepreneurship prior to, during, and even after college, and play an effective role in our small business, entrepreneurial, and economic community.”

The BECU Credit Union, the largest credit union in Washington state, sponsors the Business Plan Competition FinTech merit prize that recognizes the team with the most innovative idea in the financial technology space. The 2019 winning team, Obsidian Bot, created a website that enables cryptocurrency traders to automate their trading strategies. The platform offers a marketplace for “bots,” a type of software that can be programmed to carry out certain actions. In this space, users can create, sell, and test the performance of bots.

BECU’s support stems from the credit union’s philosophy of “people helping people,” by providing financial aid to students who most need it and by expanding educational programs devoted to entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and innovation.

Cultivating entrepreneurial mindsets

The Terry Sparks Program is a business incubator that helps freshmen and sophomores start their own small businesses with the support of mentors and up to $500 in startup funding. Sparks (’55 Bus. Admin.), former president of Riley’s Reproductions and Printing (renamed Riley’s Enterprise Solutions Inc.), has a long-history of investing in the Carson College. He stays motivated by his desire to play an active role in making the college’s entrepreneurship program unique among peer universities and influencing many students.

“I want the WSU Carson College of Business to have the top entrepreneurship program in the country, possibly the world,” he says.

He believes hands-on learning opportunities are the path to making WSU distinct. “You can read a lot of books and watch a lot of videos on skiing, but until you actually put the skis on and head downhill, you really don’t have a clue  how to ski,” he says. “Real entrepreneurial and innovative experiences help students become more business savvy and therefore more marketable before they graduate.”

Dean’s Catalyst Fund

The Dean’s Catalyst Fund is an investment opportunity for supporters that enables the Carson College to prototype new programs. Successful pilots establish a proof of concept that makes the case for sustainable funding to support the initiative. Less successful ventures—inevitable if the college is to take risks—still enable learning and improvement.

One early success backed by the fund is the WSU Entrepreneurship Skills and Knowledge Accelerator (WESKA) that hosts WSU graduate students for a weeklong consortium to explore entrepreneurship concepts.

“With WESKA, the Dean’s Catalyst Fund is being used to accelerate the delivery of business education to graduate students across the University,” says Hunter. “The fund allows us to be innovative and pilot programs so we can move quickly to meet the needs of students.”

Vision for future entrepreneurial efforts

In addition to the Business Plan Competition and WESKA, there are many opportunities to invest in entrepreneurial education. Critical needs include a naming gift for the Center for Entrepreneurship that would support sustainable operations and funding to remodel the physical home of the Center for Entrepreneurship, The Commons Collaboration Center. In addition to naming gifts, additional funding for the Center for Entrepreneurship through the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Initiative Excellence Fund will enable us to provide entrepreneurs in residence, attract motivated students to Carson, sponsor students to travel to external business plan competitions, launch new programs and hire the staff needed to manage them. It is our vision to inspire and engage greater numbers of students in entrepreneurship mindset, learning, and programs.

“We want students at WSU who are even a little “entre-curious” to see the Center for Entrepreneurship as the first stop for assistance,” says Mayes. “And the more opportunities we offer students to explore their passion, discover their path, and pursue their potential, the better prepared they will be for careers in existing firms and start-up ventures alike.”

To learn more about ways you can invest in Carson College programs,
contact Jeff Pilcher, director of development,
at 509-335-8906 or