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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, June 10, 2013, 6:00 am

New student group gives SSU entrepreneurs a home

Hope to promote new ventures across disciplines

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    ROHNERT PARK — With a hope of attracting and supporting entrepreneurially minded students both inside and outside of the School of Business and Economics, a newly formed “Entrepreneurship Society” at Sonoma State University is among the school’s latest efforts to broaden its role in cultivating cross-disciplinary connections between current and future entrepreneurs.

    Known more commonly as the “Trep Society,” leaders at the business school launched the student group through a formative first cohort in the spring semester. Viewed as “co-curricular” with academic courses concerning entrepreneurship, the effort is expected to evolve significantly in the fall semester through the establishment of retail and co-working space for student entrepreneurs in the university’s new Student Center.

    Kirsten Ely

    “We want to say ‘What you’re being taught here can fuel your entrepreneurship. You can start your business, here, now,’” said Dr. Kirsten Ely, a professor at the business school and faculty-in-residence at the North Bay iHub at Sonoma Mountain Village.

    An initial group of 20 students joined the newly formed organization last fall, meeting regularly with regional business leaders at the offices of the North Bay iHub and discussing the most effective format for a group that would attract entrepreneurial students from different disciplines at Sonoma State, Dr. Ely said.  

    It would not be the first high-reaching student group developed under the business school. The largest academic club on the campus, the Accounting Forum, is often credited for helping to fuel an employment rate for accounting graduates that administrators say typically tops 90 percent. While different in scope, the Trep Society could also play a significant role in enhancing outcomes for students looking to launch new business ventures.

    “Frankly, every time I turn and talk to a student here, I find out they want to have a business, or already do,” Dr. Ely said.

    Dr. Ely noted that students in disciplines outside of the business school were regularly producing marketable ideas as part of their academic or personal work, like smartphone applications created under the computer science program. In many cases, those students are unaware of the potential for a commercial venture, she said.

    “They get stuck into this ‘take a class, get a job’ mode,” she said.

    As a rallying point for those curious about launching or joining a new business, the newly formed group could help aggregate potential entrepreneurs and connect talents throughout the university, Dr. Ely said. A 12-student advisory group will participate in a process to hone the group’s scope this summer, along with a rollout of the retail space in the new student center that is still under construction.

    Dr. Richard Senghas

    The formation of the Trep Society reflects a broader effort by the business school to build new connections with other areas of the university. Dr. Richard Senghas, vice chair of the faculty at Sonoma State and part of a committee exploring such efforts, said that similarities in curricula between disciplines are often obscured by a lack of common language to discuss concepts like entrepreneurship.

    “You don’t go into an entrepreneurial effort saying ‘I want to be an entrepreneur.’ You say, ‘I have a great idea.’” said Dr. Senghas, an anthropology professor with a long history in Silicon Valley startups. “Whether they’re a political science major or a biology major, how do we make them realize that these are similar concepts?”

    Promoting a common ground for students of different backgrounds could also lead to business, nonprofit or other partnerships that have greater outcomes, better reflecting the kind of diverse experience seen for teams at successful startups, he said. The same could be said for faculty, Dr. Senghas said.

    “That’s what entrepreneurial efforts usually do — you have a cluster of people from different areas who know how to make things happen,” he said. “If they can be linked into the entrepreneur club, they are more likely to succeed.”

    The business school at Sonoma State also offers an upper-division and graduate-level course on entrepreneurship, with the MBA-level course planned for offering this fall, said Dr. William Silver, dean of the business school. Students in the upcoming course will be required to partner with a non-business student elsewhere in the university, providing those cross-discipline collaborations in the context of coursework

    Mark Nelson

    “It doesn’t matter whether you’re an artist or in business. If you can get exposed to some of these entrepreneurship models, it stays with you the rest of your life. If you can translate your passion to economic output — hello enlightenment,” said Mark Nelson, entrepreneur-in-residence at the School of Business and Economics.

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