Dec. 21, 2020
Growing CWU Entrepreneurship Program Ready to Capitalize on Initial Success
The Entrepreneurship program at Central Washington University has come a long way since it was introduced in 2015. Now, the College of Business minor is preparing to take a giant leap forward and become a four-year degree program.
Starting next fall, CWU will begin offering a Bachelor of Science in Entrepreneurship as it seeks to build on the momentum that has carried Director Bill Provaznik and his team of adjunct professors to this point.
The CWU Board of Trustees approved the new BS degree earlier this year, taking advantage of a $460,000 grant from the Herbert B. Jones Foundation that will allow the program to hire a tenure-track professor and one instructor.
“This is a big deal for us because it will more than double our program’s faculty,” said Provaznik, who leads the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “The interest across campus has been consistent every year, but since the minor often takes more than two years to complete, a lot of students time out before they finish. I’m hoping we can help that by adding two new faculty members.”
During the program’s first five years, more than 60 CWU students have started businesses, securing 35 business licenses from the state of Washington. Provaznik said many of the student-run businesses have either closed or are dormant, but that doesn’t mean his students weren’t successful.
He views the Entrepreneurship program as the start of a long journey that may take years to produce a winning idea.
“You just have to learn from the experience and build something new,” said Provaznik, who also serves as chair of the Management and Marketing department. “It might be your second or third idea that really takes off. But you have to go through the process and make some mistakes. It can take a while, but our students leave here with the tools, the skills, and the mindset to be successful.”
One of the program’s recent graduates, Grant Lawson (’19), said working with Provaznik and lecturer Lawrence Danton for two years helped him develop an entirely new approach to his career than when he started as a Finance major in 2014.
While Lawson and his partners chose not to pursue their business plan after graduation, he left CWU with the knowledge and experience he will need if he ever returns to his small-business roots.
“My mindset now is completely different than it was before, and I attribute most of that to the Entrepreneurship program,” said Lawson, who works as a certified public accountant at Moss Adams in Yakima. “Even though I didn’t continue with my business, I tried. And just by going through the process, I realized that many things we think of as being insurmountable — like starting a company, building a network, or hustling your way into a job — are actually not that difficult at all.”
Lawson hasn’t given up on the possibility of starting another business someday, but even if he stays on his current accounting path, he could see himself becoming a chief financial officer at a startup someday.
Those aspirations all took shape during his time as a CWU student and mentor.
“Entrepreneurship is more than just going through the motions of starting a business,” Lawson said. “It’s all about changing your thinking from the traditional ‘graduate and get a job’ mindset to becoming more of a problem-solver. The projects we worked on forced us to think outside the box, and I still use those principles every day in my work. I think this program would be valuable for anyone, even if they’re not considering starting a business.”
Another recent graduate, Adilene Torres (’20), said in addition to learning how to solve problems and create a business plan, she developed a collection of skills that have given her an edge in her first year as a marketing professional.
Building a network, becoming self-sufficient, and learning to adapt to constant change have all helped Torres excel in her position at Yakima Chief Hops (YCH).
“The industry I work in (hemp) is new and it’s constantly undergoing changes,” she said. “Having the ability to not only adapt, but knowing when to adapt, has made navigating this industry a lot easier.”
Torres explored two business plans during her time in the program, and she is still moving forward with both — a cosmetic brush cleaner and a beverage delivery service — in her spare time. She credits the CWU program for sending her in the right direction, and she’s glad she took a chance on her way to a business degree.
“It has always been a dream of mine to have my own business, so there was really no downside to learning about entrepreneurship,” Torres said. “Right now, I’m just trying to gain more business experience, and I hope both of my ideas will someday come to fruition.”
One of the reasons the program has been so popular during its first five years is that it attracts students from a wide range of educational backgrounds. Business majors like Torres work alongside classmates who specialize in everything from music to history to science.
Provaznik said the theory behind the program is that, statistically, most businesses aren’t started by business majors. He and his colleagues are trying to reach as many students from as many backgrounds as they can.
“We show you how to take something you like and turn it into a business plan,” he said. “We also put you with people from a variety of backgrounds — students and professionals — and then we cross-pollinate those ideas.”
Student mentors like Lawson are chosen by the faculty to provide direction, motivation, and support to their peers. Provaznik and his colleagues also offer a reliable support network to keep their students engaged.
“That’s what got me into the program,” said Lawson, who unexpectedly discovered an interest in entrepreneurship by taking Management 200, the program’s introductory course. “Bill and Lawrence are always willing to sit down with you and help you with any problems or questions you may have.
“One of the unique aspects about Central is that you have a lot of opportunities to build connections with professors, alumni, and people in the business community. That’s one of the main reasons I would recommend this program to anyone.”
Torres said her professors showed her that she didn’t have to be afraid to fail. Learning from your mistakes is just part of the process.
“Why not make those early mistakes while you’re still in college, where you have a team of professors — all entrepreneurs themselves — who can help you work through those mistakes?” she said. “This program taught me that anyone can become an entrepreneur, no matter your field of study.”
2017 alum Ernie Kilburn, right, started her senior services supply company while in the CWU Entrepreneurship program.
Start of Something Big
While most program graduates have chosen to pursue other opportunities, one alum has already made a name for herself in the Ellensburg business community.
Ernie Kilburn (’17) took the business plan she developed at CWU and built a self-supporting venture that has created about a dozen new jobs in Kittitas County. The past nine months have been challenging, but she remains optimistic.
“COVID has hit us hard, so we are determining our next steps carefully,” Kilburn said. “But once we are back in the full swing of production, we will be implementing a variety of programs to create jobs for adults with disabilities.”
Kilburn’s company, Life Improved Medical (formerly Gigglydoo), started when she was doing research for her Entrepreneurship minor. The senior services supply company has been gaining a following over the past three years, making accessories for medical devices, such as walkers, and transforming them into personal items.
Kilburn’s first product was an attachment for walkers that helps seniors develop personal attachments to those items (i.e., puppy paws). She also produces vinyl wraps that attach to the front of walkers, making the devices look like a truck or sports car.
The Business Administration graduate traces much of her initial success back to her time at CWU.
“The program not only teaches people how to start a business, but it gives you a lot of practical knowledge,” Kilburn said. “It also empowers individuals to take control of their lives and make a difference, rather than doing what everyone else is doing.”
Kilburn said she has always wanted to help people, but until she met Provaznik and Danton, she had no idea how to start a business. Their guidance, and her personal drive, helped her realize her goal of providing employment opportunities to a segment of the population that is close to her heart. She feels fortunate to have found the CWU Entrepreneurship program.
“The professors showed us that we didn’t have to be someone special to start a business; we could just do it,” Kilburn said. “They helped me realize that business ownership would allow me to do what I wanted, which is to help people.”
Provaznik points to Kilburn’s business as the program’s first “homerun,” but he is confident there are many more winning ideas yet to come with the introduction of the four-year degree track in 2021.
Now, the sky’s the limit.
“It’s exciting because the energy in our program is already very high,” Provaznik said. “We take a different approach than you find at other universities because many of our students are first-generation or come from low-asset backgrounds. We see an opportunity to help them so they can use that knowledge to build something new in their own communities. Now, we will have a chance to reach even more people.”
Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, David.Leder@cwu.edu, 509-963-1518.