Economics and Entrepreneurship

Steve Weekes, (BS, Forestry, ’69) has provided the funding to develop programming in entrepreneurship and leadership for students in CFANS.  Jeff Stamp has joined us as a Teaching Professor to lead the effort.   

  1. Tell us about yourself and your career path.

I was born in St. Paul when my parents were students on the St. Paul campus, so the University of Minnesota has always been a part of my life. I grew up on a farm in west central Minnesota (Lac qui Parle County) and then came back to the U to study food science.  I earned both my B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Food Science, where I was a doctoral student of Professor Theodore Labuza.

After my Ph.D., I did corporate stints at both General Mills and PepsiCo’s snack division, Frito-Lay, in product development. While at Frito-Lay, I had the opportunity to lead the initial team that created and developed the Baked! Lays Potato Crisps. I left corporate life to start my own product development think tank and then sold that company in 1999. 

After the sale of my start-up, I had the opportunity to participate as the visiting Markley Professor at Miami University of Ohio in entrepreneurship, a program designed to bring corporate executives into a university environment.  I found real joy in returning to academics to both work with students and do research in entrepreneurial opportunity recognition. Over the years, I’ve lectured and held workshops at more than 100 university and colleges worldwide.  Most recently before coming back to Minnesota, I held the Burwell Chair of Entrepreneurship at the University of North Dakota.

2. What brings you to the U? 

I’ve always looked for ways to stay engaged with the University.  In 2016 while on a campus to visit my former doctoral advisor, I was introduced to Mary Buschette, the Director of Alumni Relations for CFANS.  That meeting was a pivotal moment because we brainstormed a number of ideas on how to increase student engagement in developing professional skills beyond the classroom.  From that meeting came the first Agtastic Idea Challenge competition.  Twenty-one teams of students from the St. Paul campus participated in a series of Saturday bootcamps brainstorming new ideas for products and services in agribusiness.  The students then put together their favorite concepts and pitched them to a panel of industry experts for a chance at a $1,000 prize.

That program was a lot of fun, and the students really committed to creating new ideas they were passionate about. Along the way, they got to learn about product development, how to solve consumer problems, and how to pitch their concepts to others. In the summer of 2018, Frances Homans, Department Head of ApEc was looking for someone to teach the entrepreneurship class, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to come back to the U.

Steve Weekes’ vision of the new center of entrepreneurship and leadership is to provide additional opportunities for any student in CFANS to combine courses, experiences, and skills in leadership that can help leverage the knowledge gained within a major to the economic realities of their professional lives. Having been a graduate of the U and having spent time in my early career in corporate life, I resonated with this vision because I was always amazed at how much the requirement of a clear market success drove the technological direction of the products we were developing. Students are asking about how to apply their education to future careers and the new center will provide additional resources for them to do just that. 

3. What is your vision for entrepreneurship and leadership education in CFANS?  How do you see your program within the disciplines of CFANS? 

The goal of the new center within CFANS is to create a universal certificate and minor in entrepreneurship and leadership that any student can add to their degree program. Every organization whether big or small, for-profit or non-profit, at some point launches a new product, service or initiative. All students in the fourteen majors in CFANS are striving to get a job or start a career where they can make an impact. The vision of the center is to provide education and skill development in three key areas of change – recognizing an opportunity or need to solve a problem, creating value through a solution that addresses the needs of a customer or stakeholder, and capturing that value by understanding the resources it will take to bring that solution to the market.

Our focus isn’t overtly centered around the start-up venture, but rather the process of creating and capturing new ideas that bring economic value to any organization.  The focus is on experiencing and developing entrepreneurial thinking and leadership skills rather than starting a new business.

A lot of this vision germinated during my corporate life as a product developer where I had to apply my knowledge of food science gained during my time in CFANS and figure out how to bring new products to the market that solved a consumer problem and were sustainable to the organization. There is considerable focus in corporations today on bringing entrepreneurial skills to their innovation and business development teams. The CFANS students who go through this program will have additional assets to leverage in the job market.

4. Why does it make sense to have your home in Applied Economics and Agricultural Education, Communication, and Marketing?

Entrepreneurship has historically been embedded within the field of economics. The two classical economic theories of the role of entrepreneurship in economic progress center on the entrepreneur either as the disruptive creator and innovator that brings about new combinations of goods and services (Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of disruptive or disequilibrating markets) or as the perceiver of new profit opportunities that were previously undiscovered and that can be re-coordinated to capture value (Israel Kirzner’s theory of discovery as an equilibrating market force). For the students, we also emphasize the role of the entrepreneur as the individual that sees the opportunity, recognizes its economic and social value, and then champions the process to bring it into a marketplace (from Friedrich Hayek’s theory of the entrepreneur as the individual).  These applications of economic theory are relevant to students who want to bring about their ideas into a real-world form that can have an impact on the human condition.

This is also why it is so vital that elements of education and communications are an integral part of the entrepreneurship and leadership certificate. Without the skill to bring learning moments for others and communication to these new and novel ideas, their chance of taking root and succeeding are limited. There is a value component to every major area of study but entrepreneurship boils down to a value argument in an economic context.

5. Tell us about the entrepreneurship class you’ve taught in our department for the past several years. 

The first class we launched within the center’s scope is APEC 3551: Concept Design and Value-added Entrepreneurship in Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. The main goal of the class involves exploring and practicing the decisions and processes entrepreneurs use in the act of creating and launching a new product or service concept in the market. Basically, the course teaches students to identify a consumer problem, solve it, and make money in the process.

To do this, the students must come up with and design their own unique product or service concept that solves the problem they’ve identified for some identified target customer and project what it would take to generate $1,000,000 in revenue.  There is no requirement to view this as a start-up.  Instead, the students create a concept feasibility plan that they pitch to an approval board. The idea is to identify all the resources and operational requirements to bring the concept to life. They pitch to a live panel of industry experts that come from the corporate world of innovation, product, and new business development. The base resource requirements to bring a new concept to the market are very similar regardless of corporation size so the focus can stay on the concept development rather than venture development.

Over the past three years, students from many of the majors within CFANS have produced dozens of clever concepts that have emerged from the class.  Some of the favorites with the panelists who evaluate these concepts have been – a hair care product line made from flax seed ingredients, an ear-tag sensor system that can detect individual dairy cows and adjust their feed supplementation in real time, a piglet intensive care unit system that can help nourish undersized piglets, a bee adopt-a-hive program for backyard gardeners, back-yard scale biodigesters for food waste to create cooking gas for your grill, frozen zucchini bread in a variety of flavors and styles for everyday use with consumers on a gluten-free diet, an app that can track and monitor the shelf-life of the food in your home, a novel bear-proof backpack system, an electric Sherpa-cart to carry all your gear while hiking, and an edible hemp-based woven netting that can be used as a hay bale wrap that is safe for cows to eat.

The students really do a great job in moving these concepts along from creation, to product design, to customer feedback, to business model analysis to finally resource and operational considerations.  The key to the pitch is to make the go or no-go recommendation to the panel.

6. What’s the most common misconception about entrepreneurship? 

That’s a big question, but an important one. After teaching entrepreneurship and leadership for twenty years, the most common misconception I’ve heard is that entrepreneurs and leaders are born and not made. This simply isn’t true.  Entrepreneurship is a process of creating value by bringing together a unique set of resources in order to pursue an opportunity. Since it is a process, we can teach it. Some individuals do have a great natural drive to pursue opportunities but I’ve seen that, once students see and feel the opportunity, a very natural curiosity emerges that gets them excited to see if they can bring their ideas to life.

7. What gives you hope? 

The students of today give me hope.  This current generation has countless resources available to them – virtually no further away than a Google search – that the ability to discover new opportunities is endless.  I often ask students what they want to do after graduation and the answer is some form of – “make the world a better place.”  With the new center, it’s my mission to makes sure they leave the University of Minnesota with a clear ability to define “better” so that they can truly have a positive impact on the world.