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Elms Unveils Its Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership

Building a Launchpad

Isiah Odunlami

Isiah Odunlami will be among the attendees at the first Startup Lean Weekend, staged by Elms College’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

Isiah Odunlami is an accountant by trade, currently handling audit and tax work for Springfield-based Moriarty & Primack. He enjoys the work, and, like most in this field, finds the ability to help clients grasp issues and solve specific problems quite rewarding.

But while he’s obviously an accomplished ‘numbers guy,’ ‘bean counter,’ or whatever else one chooses to call those in this field, he believes he has other talents — as a leader, role model, and motivator.

He’s done a few motivational talks, including some before young people in his hometown of Providence, R.I., and recently pieced together a video that enables him to put some of his thoughts, or messages, as he prefers to call them, before potentially much larger audiences.

“It still needs some work, to be sure,” he said of that video, adding quickly that many have already seen it and been moved by it — so much so that he is advancing and escalating thoughts of turning these talents into a business venture. And to do that, he knows he needs contacts, support, advice, direction, and some kind of affirmation that this is something he can sell.

His quest for all the above will bring him to the Elms College campus in Chicopee on July 29 for something called the Startup Lean Weekend (subtitled “Creating Customers and Value”), which is aptly named.

Indeed, this is a full weekend of programs, designed for people who are just getting started, and focused on the Lean Launchpad concept, which involves accelerating the traditional startup method of creating a business plan and then launching a venture from it.


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It is the first initiative of the Elms College Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL), which was created for … well, people like Odunlami. These are individuals and teams who are not quite ready for prime time as entrepreneurs and, therefore, a group like Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) and its accelerator program, designed for companies with developed concepts and, in most cases, already-established businesses.

But they do have ideas, said Amanda Garcia, CPA, director of the CEL and an associate professor of accounting at Elms, adding quickly that many don’t know whether that idea will sell, how it can be sold, and to whom. And they need to find these things out before they invest significant amounts of time, money, and sweat in that concept.

“Research shows that 42% of startups fail because of a lack of product-market fit,” she explained. “What the Startup Lean Weekend will help people do is flush out an idea and determine if there’s a market for it before they spend a lot of money.”

Amanda Garcia

Amanda Garcia says the basic mission behind the CEL is to help those with entrepreneurial energy “fail less.”

The program will feature a host of specific programs, which all take the form of learning opportunities, networking platforms, or both, said Garcia, listing everything from an “idea jam” to a business pitch competition to a networking dinner. By the time it’s over, participants — and the college is expecting about 30 of them — will have a much better idea of whether there is a market for their concept and how to take that idea forward.

Over the course of the next year, there will be other forms of programming, including a Lean Launchpad course, which will take participants down the pathway of building an idea into a venture, as well as other classes on subjects ranging from marketing to financial planning (more on all this later).

Both Garcia and Nancy Davis, business development specialist for the CEL and Elms’ MBA program, acknowledged that there is a great deal of energy in the region concerning entrepreneurship and educational programs focused on this subject. The emerging goal at Elms was to be part of this movement, while not duplicating any of the efforts taking place at other colleges and universities, or within organizations such as VVM and the Grinspoon Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Initiative.

With that goal in mind, school officials met with these various players, asking questions and listening very carefully to the answers. What emerged was a desire to meet noted gaps in programming, and, eventually, a vehicle for doing so — the CEL.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this initiative and how those at Elms believe it will be a valuable addition to what is becoming a bourgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region.

The Idea Is Ideas

As she talked about the CEL, Davis said the name was chosen carefully. It reflects a desire for this new program to focus on entrepreneurship, leadership, and how these skills are intertwined in many ways.

And this brings her back to those many discussions that were had, not only with other colleges and agencies like VVM, but also with those administering the region’s many leadership programs. What came out of those talks was a need for something that wasn’t a four-year degree program, but could help individuals (again, like Odunlami) who have some entrepreneurial energy and could use some help with tapping it.

Putting things another, more colorful way, Garcia said the CEL, and especially its Lean Launchpad weekend and course, will help individuals “fail less,” and save money in the process.

Elaborating, she reiterated that the Elms initiative is, as the name implies, a center for entrepreneurship. It features a full portfolio of programs, from degrees and certificates in entrepreneurship to workshops, to the Startup Lean Weekend (there will be four of them over the next year).

They are designed, said Garcia, for people who have an idea but not a business, or those who have a business and may want to expand it or take it in new directions and need to know if these plans have merit.

Nancy Davis

Nancy Davis says Elms created the CEL with the broad goal of bringing still another dimension to the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In addition to the Startup Lean Weekend, there will be a CEL Lean Program, an eight-week course focused on subjects ranging from keeping and growing a customer base to creating a revenue model, to defining one’s value proposition. There are also several CEL graduate-program tracks involving accounting and financial planning.

While Elms doesn’t want to duplicate the efforts of other groups involved with entrepreneurship, it does want to partner with them, and there should be plenty of opportunities to do just that, said Garcia.

“Some people aren’t ready for VVM and its accelerator, and this program would be great for them,” she said. “And there’s an opportunity for them to work through their idea and apply to the accelerator for further experience or launch. There are many opportunities for partnership — with us sending people to them, and them sending people to us.”

The solid response to the first Startup Lean Weekend is encouraging, said Davis, adding that it verifies the need for such programming. She said she doesn’t have a firm profile of those who have signed up yet, but knows there is strong interest among Elms alums (Odunlami is one of them) who have an entrepreneurial bent.

This includes many graduates of the school’s health programs, said Garcia, noting that many are looking to open or expand practices in various fields and could look to the CEL and its various forms of programming for help.

“I think that area will grow quickly for us,” she explained. “We have a master’s in nursing and a master’s in business, and there are a lot of entrepreneurial minds there.”

As for Odunlami, he knows there is a need for his motivational speaking and writings, especially when it comes to young people. “We need to nourish our youth — they’re the ones who are going to be running the world,” he explained. “And if we can give positive messages to these people, who’s to say how great our country, and this world, can be? It starts with one young person and continues from there.”

What he doesn’t know if he can convert his desire to meet this need into a successful venture. But he intends to find out.

Venturing Out

There’s a new billboard greeting motorists heading south on I-91, one with a simple message that sums up the CEL.

“Starting a Business? Start at Elms” is the headline in bold type, and it speaks volumes about how the school intends to become an important player in efforts to harness the entrepreneurial energy in the region and help those with ideas, well, fail less.

Elms has practiced what it now preaches; it did exhaustive research and determined that there was a need within the market and a desire for it to be filled, and it has launched what can only be called a business venture itself with great optimism.

That’s because there are many people like Isiah Odunlami, who need a better idea about whether — and how — their idea will fly.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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