Penn State students explore global entrepreneurship with teammates in London

By Yixuan Li
November 11, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On Oct. 29, 16 Penn State students were teamed up with 16 students from Middlesex University in London, and together accepted the three-week MDX+PSU Innovation Challenge. It’s a new component of Penn State’s events supporting Global Entrepreneurship Week, held globally Nov. 17-23 and Nov. 16-21 at the University Park campus.

Elizabeth Kisenwether, Penn State assistant professor of engineering design, helped launch the cross-continental student entrepreneurship initiative. “We are looking for innovative ideas from students that could be developed into an applicable model to solve a common problem in different parts of the world,” she said.

“Entrepreneurship is a term that is bold and daring — knowing how to take calculated risks and capitalizing on the results. It is the process of getting your idea off the ground and going forward to succeed.”

– Jaehong Kim,
Penn State team member,
MDX+PSU Innovation Challenge

Kisenwether explained the framework of the challenge: “Students were divided into eight teams, with two students from Penn State and two students from Middlesex University on each team. In the course of three weeks, students are required to identify a problem within one of four categories — Green Technology, In the Home, Social Entrepreneurship and Transportation — then develop a plan to solve it.”

According to Kisenwether, each team will create a three-minute video presentation, with every member of the team requiring an appearance, to be submitted before midnight on Nov. 14. The videos will be reviewed by faculty members from Penn State’s intercollege Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ENTI) minor, graduates of the Penn State Engineering Entrepreneurship (E-SHIP) and ENTI minors and selected external angel investors. They will be evaluated based on the demonstration of the problem and the team’s approach to the solution, as well as the effectiveness of the video pitch.

The top three teams will be announced and videos from the top teams will be viewed at the MDX+PSU Global Collaboration event during Global Entrepreneurship Week, and the best team will be rewarded with a paid trip to Croatia for a student entrepreneurship conference in summer 2015.

Developing the challenge

The challenge’s co-founders are Kisenwether, Linda Feltman, coordinator of Penn State Global Entrepreneurship Week, and Simon Best, a professor and program leader for MSC Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship at Middlesex University. His university’s current objective is to engage with 1,000 students this academic year, track 50 businesses that students have started and set up two businesses owned by the university’s Enterprise Development Hub (EDH@MDX) that are run by students. According to Best, the school just launched its first EDH@MDX-owned, student-run business at the end of October, a recycling business.

“Sometimes the title of ‘entrepreneurship’ could sound intimidating. Not every student wants to start a business. But having an entrepreneurial mindset is highly valued by employers in corporations as well. Every industry is calling for innovation.”

— Elizabeth Kisenwether,
Penn State assistant professor of engineering design

Kisenwether and Feltman met Best when he was visiting Penn State last fall. The three clicked well and decided to keep in touch, looking to explore opportunities. The idea of the MDX+PSU Challenge was conceived during one of their Google Hangout meetings and over time developed into a concrete project.

“We want to make Global Entrepreneurship Week a truly global event,” Feltman said. “Working with students in London will be really beneficial for our students to get experience in cross-cultural teamwork and building start-ups in today’s world.”

Challenges of the challenge

Many students with a passion for entrepreneurship across the University Park campus applied for the challenge. Kisenwether and Feltman reviewed the applications and finalized the list of 16 graduate and undergraduate students based on their ideas and availability.

When asked what entrepreneurship means to them, one of the challenge participants, Penn State student Jaehong Kim said, “Entrepreneurship is a term that is bold and daring — knowing how to take calculated risks and capitalizing on the results. It is the process of getting your idea off the ground and going forward to succeed.” 

“I think an entrepreneur is an innovator of finding a situation or task that can be more efficient with a certain product or service. It's about bettering people around you and the community you're in,” Alexandra Brennan, another Penn State challenge participant, said. “And it is completely related to being global. When you are thinking of an idea or service, most likely, another part of the world needs that, too.”

Although working in groups may not be a new concept for most of the students, working with someone they have never met before on another continent is a first experience for some.

“We need to do more than just keep the doors open to innovation. We need deliberate strategies to promote economic development and a culture that rewards entrepreneurship.”

— Penn State President Eric Barron

With the help of Google Hangout and Skype, students are able to talk with their partners thousands miles away, virtually face-to-face. But with a five-hour time difference between the Eastern U.S. and the U.K. and the individual differences of students’ schedules, it’s not always easy to get everyone together at the same time. Some messages won’t be read until the next day.

“Developing connections is the main outcome,” Best said, describing what he hopes the MDX+PSU Innovation Challenge will accomplish. “Despite social media, we still live in a disconnected world. We are extremely dependent on visual signals, and working on a project like this limits the visual signals. Another achievement I want for the students is to learn how to cope with the lack of nonverbal communication that occurs when you work with others remotely.”

Many student participants expressed their excitement to work with people from different backgrounds with diverse sets of skills and contributing different perspectives.

Among the participants, many have already experienced the feeling of being an entrepreneur. Some used to or still own small businesses, ranging from a photography studio to an Ecuadorian food cart.

Abraham DeHart, a Penn State MBA student who has owned a landscape business for nine years since the age of 12, said his experience as an entrepreneur has helped him in better understanding different components of starting a business. 

“People say the world is becoming smaller and smaller because of globalization. Working on a multicultural team with each member from a different national origin, we want to take the opportunity of this challenge to create something that could be beneficial and applied to different parts of the world.”

— Abraham DeHart,
Penn State MBA student and team member,
MDX+PSU Innovation Challenge

“We work well as a team — while some of us are good at coming up with innovative ideas, some of us can work on implementing the ideas,” DeHart said.

“People say the world is becoming smaller and smaller because of globalization,” he continued. “Working on a multicultural team with each member from a different national origin, we want to take the opportunity of this challenge to create something that could be beneficial and applied to different parts of the world.”

For some, this is the beginning of their exploration to entrepreneurship. Amanda Crittenden, who is participating this challenge as a Penn State freshman, said that it has been great experience for her.

“I have learned a lot through my time in this project that I didn’t expect to learn,” she said. “How to communicate with an international team, how to manage our time wisely, how to overcome boundaries, and how to come up with an entrepreneurial idea and consider how it would react in the market as well as how venture capitalists might perceive our idea.”

Crittenden said she also has gained knowledge about the available resources on campus through the process. “We’ve used the expertise of many professors and students across campus to help us envision our idea as reality,” she said. “Initially, going into the challenge, I was nervous that I wouldn’t have a lot to bring to the table as a freshman, but I believe our teamwork together doesn’t necessarily have to rely on our experience in the past, but what we have to offer now.” 

Supporting an entrepreneurial culture

President Eric Barron called for a stronger “culture of entrepreneurship” during his remarks on the topic of student career success and economic development at the September 2014 Penn State Board of Trustees meeting.

“We need to do more than just keep the doors open to innovation,” Barron said. “We need deliberate strategies to promote economic development and a culture that rewards entrepreneurship.”

“Instead of attempting to tell a student what to study — they should be free to pursue what interests them, what drives them,” Barron said earlier in the year, also on the theme of student career success and economic development, one of his six major topics of discussion he identified as imperatives for the University’s future success.

Faculty members and groups have been dedicated to create more resources available for the community to inspire students in realizing new opportunities and exploring entrepreneurship. Last August, the new intercollege ENTI minor launched, offering seven entrepreneurship areas of content, or “clusters,” to accommodate different areas of interest for students in all majors. Kisenwether, director of the minor, said she would encourage every student to take at least one entrepreneurial class during college and also to look at fields outside of their own.

“Sometimes the title of ‘entrepreneurship’ could sound intimidating,” Kisenwether said. “Not every student wants to start a business. But having an entrepreneurial mindset is highly valued by employers in corporations as well. Every industry is calling for innovation.”

The Penn State Small Business Development Center (SBDC), where Feltman serves as student entrepreneurship business consultant, also provides different services for student entrepreneurs. SBDC holds weekly advising hours on the University Park campus, scheduled this semester from 4 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Kunkle Activities Center at the junction of Hammond and Sackett buildings.

Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW), brought to Penn State in 2009 by the SBDC, also will be a good opportunity for students to explore their passion for innovation, with more than 60 events scheduled this year. Students themselves initiated many of the events.

Jason Brewer, a Penn State alumnus, has been coming back to campus as a speaker for GEW in recent years. Brewer is the CEO of Philadelphia digital agency Brolik, which he co-founded with friends in State College when he was a sophomore student in 2004. For him, it has been an exciting journey as every day could lead to new possibilities for a startup company.

Brewer also said college is a perfect time for students to start thinking about starting their own company, with all the resources available on campus. “You have time to do a lot of experiments,” Brewer said. “And even if you fail, you can learn from mistakes and apply your experience when you go into the real world.”

Penn State News and Media Relations intern Yixuan “Heather” Li also is a participant in the MDX+PSU Innovation Challenge.

Last Updated November 17, 2014