Textbooks and homework assignments are important learning tools in the college classroom, but there is little that can compete with real-world business experience. We can read about a case study or how-to implement an online advertising campaign, but you will gain a fuller understanding of what works and what doesn’t when you actually sit down and apply theories and principles on real projects. And Gonzaga University’s New Venture Lab (NVL) has been doing just that since 2001.
The campus-based extracurricular group — offered through the Hogan Entrepreneurial Leadership Program — pairs student teams with Spokane-based startups and nonprofits to work on goal-driven projects such as business plans, marketing campaigns, target research, and data/finance analysis.
“Students get to experience firsthand what it’s like to be part of a growing business, and apply what they are currently learning in the classroom in a real-world setting,” says Cole Kelly, New Venture Lab’s program manager. He says to think of NVL as a student-run consulting firm. Depending on the business’s needs, students may develop a business plan, conduct competitive analysis, develop marketing campaigns, or create a social media plan.
Each semester, NVL staff assign student applicants to a team, and then match student teams with local entrepreneurs and small business owners with project needs. There are eight to 10 project teams each term, depending on student interest and local business availability, and four or five students on a team, plus one more experienced NVL student in the lead role of project manager. The NVL program manager oversees each team and works with them on project scope, task planning, weekly check-ins, client presentations, and the final deliverable.
NVL staff, faculty, and research librarians mentor and guide students throughout the project period. “NVL’s program managers provide guidance and support to the project managers to ensure that each project goes smoothly,” says Kelly. “The NVL also has an excellent advisory board made up of local business owners and subject matter experts with whom the students interact throughout the semester and provide valuable feedback for each project.”
The projects and participating businesses vary each semester, allowing students to participate many times throughout their four years, take on new roles, and gain experience with different types of businesses, products, and services.
Get Real Experience with Real Businesses
Participating businesses range from idea-stage startups by fellow students to established companies and nonprofits in the Spokane area. The business might offer a service, sell consumer products, or focus on digital tools, like a smartphone app.
“Business ideas are chosen by the NVL’s program managers from a mix of applications and references from the Spokane entrepreneurial community,” says Kelly. “Program managers will interview all business applicants and determine if the idea or business would be a good fit for the program, and if they believe the students will be able to provide a quality, meaningful deliverable to the client as well.”
In advance of the semester, Follett meets with the business owners to develop a scope of work, which is then reviewed by the NVL board, a group of Spokane professionals in varied industries and roles — marketing managers, lawyers, financial specialists.
NVL students have worked on:
Real Frequency Analyzed target markets and created marketing strategies for a college consultancy business. In a later semester, another team revisited the previous plan to create a longer-term strategy.
Senior Home Sharing Created a business model canvas, analyzed target markets, created a marketing plan, and researched potential revenue streams for a startup site aimed at people 50+ years old to find a roommate with skills or assets that would complement theirs.
Winterwoods Tea Company Formalized a business plan, researched customer demographics, and strategized a marketing campaign for a Spokane tea startup.
Workout Anywhere Researched target markets, storyboarded a smartphone app, and identified local app developers for this online fitness training program.
Volt On Created a business model canvas, researched potential target markets, and created a financial plan for an electric motorcycle conversion kit designed by a Gonzaga engineering student.
Proven Compliance Solutions Developed a comprehensive marketing strategy for a consulting company with a unique software solution to help power companies comply with industry standards.
Northeast Community Center Conducted target market research and developed a financial forecast. Budgetary review and recommendations saved the neighborhood health center $30,000.
Learning Task by Task, Goal by Goal
“Throughout the course of the semester, a student and their team will do work [on] whatever the entrepreneur needs, and then that entrepreneur receives free help within their business. It is really mutually beneficial,” says Catherine Follett, NVL program manager. “It is not a lot of time on the students’ end, but the benefits of it are really great. It is also a really good resume booster, so it is a really good investment for students to be a part of.”
“We break it down into three big phases or main goals that we want to have deliverables for the entrepreneur by the end of the semester,” she continues. “So, it could be a business model canvas with a value proposition, target market research, and social media work with research. That would be a whole scope and then it is broken down into weekly work, [and] tasks to complete to hit that big goal.”
Three “report outs” — or goal check-ins — over the course of the semester keep students on track, and final deliverables are provided to the client.
Working on an NVL team is fun, inspiring, and a great learning experience.” — Pitcher T., Thailand, Accounting, ’21
For Business Majors — and Beyond
As part of Gonzaga’s top-100 business programs (U.S. News & World Report, 2021), the New Venture Lab is a natural fit for business majors, aspiring entrepreneurs, and finance students, but Follett and Kelly say students of all majors are strongly encouraged to apply in order to diversify the team’s offerings, point of view, and expertise.
“Most, if not all, students will be working for some kind of business or organization upon graduation,” says Kelly. “So it allows for a competitive advantage for recent graduates to know the inner workings of a business, regardless of major. Teams also have various roles that can appeal to any student’s leadership or teamwork style.”
Follett concurs — non-business majors strengthen the team’s capabilities and fill in knowledge gaps.
“Our thought process when putting teams together is the more diverse the better,” she says. “That includes having one person of every age level, freshmen to senior, on a project. A student from any major can gain a lot out of it. Last semester, we had a science-based project so we put a lot of bio majors on it, or if we have an engineering project, we will put some engineers on it.”
Miguel L., an international relations/entrepreneurial leadership major at Gonzaga, participated in the Volt On project, and appreciated the students’ varied majors and interests.
“The NVL Lab was a great opportunity to work with a diverse group of people because of its interdisciplinary nature. That means that we all had different weaknesses and strengths,” says the Ecuador native. “Teams are diverse in the real world, so achieving compromise is essential. Also, NVL does not have the pressure of being graded — that means that it can easily turn into a passion project.”
Building Skills and Resume Experience
The NVL program is a supportive place to develop skills that build resumes and land jobs. Working with five teammates toward a clear, deadline-driven goal is what happens in the corporate world, too. Actionable, task-driven projects develop your team-building, communication, public-speaking, written, and time management skills, along with interpersonal skills — all things hiring managers love to hear in interviews.
On an NVL project, you may even get to develop your research, data analytics, social media management, design, Excel, or copywriting skills. In addition, you are provided with strong mentoring guidance, networking opportunities, and a final portfolio piece.
For Pitcher T., an accounting student from Thailand, the most important thing he learned from his time working on NVL projects is communication. “Communication — whether in writing, presenting, or in discussion — is very important because people’s [time is] valuable,” he says. “The ability to convey messages in a concise manner can help us build relationships, and increase efficiency in groups as well.”
Business administration student Leire C. most appreciated getting an insider view at how a new business gets launched. “The work you do to help your entrepreneur is the kind of work you could be doing post-graduation, and it’s a great way to learn about how businesses start,” says the Spanish native, who worked on the Senior Home Sharing startup. “It was exciting to see how our entrepreneur appreciated and used the work we did for her. It’s also a good way to meet other students, and since you will spend a lot of time with your team members, you will make great friends.”
How International Students Can Get Involved
Working on a New Ventures Lab project is open to all Gonzaga students, regardless of major, year, or previous work experience. A short Google form application is due at the beginning of the term and then reviewed by the NVL supervisors and program managers.
It’s a simple application — but take it seriously, says Follett. “Primarily, we look at effort put into the application,” she says. “If we can tell that someone spent a lot of time working on their application, we definitely value that because we think, if they are willing to spend time on that application, they will be willing to spend time on their work for the entrepreneur.”
The questions are straightforward — what is your major, how much time can you commit, what other clubs are you involved in, what are your project interests, and a key one: what are your personal passions and interests.
“We encourage people to be really specific with their interests, because that is the biggest thing we use to pair people with the projects,” says Follett. “For instance, if a student said they really like yoga, and we had a yoga studio [business participant], we would totally put them on that project because we think they’d be interested. If someone suggests in their application that the really like working with nonprofits and we have a nonprofit, we will definitely favor them for that project.”
International students bring a unique, global perspective to their teams, and in turn, you will get to meet new people, strengthen your English skills, and see American business workings up close.
“Don’t let anything hinder you from applying because it makes the team so much more well-rounded when everyone has different ideas,” she says.
‘Make a difference in someone’s life’
Teamwork, hands-on marketing experience, common goals, communication, meeting deadlines, making new friends — there are many rewarding benefits of working on a New Venture Lab project. With NVL project experience to put on your resume and speak about in interviews, you will be sure to impress hiring managers when applying to internships and your first job after graduation.
“I had a great experience with NVL,” continues Pitcher. “Students benefit from taking on responsibilities that can make a difference in someone’s life, which is different than working on a project for class. Working on an NVL team is fun, inspiring, and a great learning experience.”
“[NVL] changed my perspective by showing me that we can make an impact, even as students who are learning about the discipline,” says Pitcher. “I learned some very valuable lessons from being part of the teams and working on different projects. I also think it is important to learn to work with others that you may not necessarily share the same interests or work style, because you still have responsibilities to uphold within a team, and like a puzzle, a missing piece will make it incomplete.”
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