Jerry Gustafson
Beloit College
Posted 9.1.2008

You're considered one of the first in higher education to integrate entrepreneurship education with arts training. Could you give us a brief sketch of how you came to this topic?

Thanks for the compliment but I am not sure I am among the first. I think I was actually a tag-a-long with Joe Roberts and Gary Ernst. Joe, who is at Columbia College, and Gary, North Central, were and are colleagues in the Coleman foundation network of entrepreneurship educators. Joe has this great job as an endowed entrepreneurship chair in a department of arts and entertainment in a major arts school. So he was a natural leader. Anyway, Joe, Gary and I and others in our group had been talking for some time about the need to deliver entrepreneurship education to artists. If artists are going to be successful, they simply have to be business persons running their own microfirms. Yet, most artists have an antipathy to commerce.

In the midst of these discussions, the Coleman Foundation challenged our group to think of important ways to move entrepreneurship forward. Gary, Joe and I seized the opportunity to have an entrepreneurship conference designed specifically to serve student artists’ needs and temperament. The result was the SEA group, the folks who sponsor the Self Employment in the Arts conference now hosted at its North Central headquarters and running collateral conferences around the country.

That was my first step. It is true, however, that since I began teaching entrepreneurship in 1984, I have been fascinated by the similarity between the nature of the creative quest evinced both by entrepreneur and artist. Since that first year, I have spent class time having students try to explain to me why art and entrepreneurship are different. Both endeavors essentially begin with nothing, gather resources and ideas to serve their commitment to create something of value. The only difference I can determine is that art is more of an individual, sometimes lonely venture while the medium of entrepreneurship is almost always organizational.

CELEB is one of the first (if not *the* first) arts entrepreneurship incubators in the county. How did it come about?

I had been teaching for 15 years or more and adopted a rather low profile since the subject was not always the most welcome in my liberal arts environment. A change in College administration and the prospect for funding opened things up. It was time for the next step. Everybody else was forming centers at the time so I started thinking about what an entrepreneurship center ought to look like in a liberal arts college. I had already determined that, hazardous as it might be, turning students loose to start their own business was a powerful way to get them motivated to learn.

So, I knew that an incubator for student businesses would be the heart of it. But I wanted to attract arts and communications students along with the more traditional business-types. I thought the ideal would be to create place full as possible with equipment and resources that students could use in many arts based businesses. On campus, we operated a cable access television station, so I asked them to come in and partner up. We had a terrific member of the music faculty who wanted to get into recording/sound-engineering, so we created a studio for him. We had a downtown storefront location, so we decided to put a student-run retail art gallery in the front windows. One thing followed from another.

For those readers who are not familiar with an "incubator" in this context, what is the purpose of incubators for arts students.

The incubator is a place that offers services to those starting businesses in order to lower start-up costs. We offer space, utilities, telephone, internet, conference areas, full amenities, and on-site consulting services on demand to all our residents. The artists and arts-based businesses tend to be hardest to reach break-even, so they need significant subsidy. We have lots of successes. An English major made lovely marbleized papers and turned them into notebooks, journals, and wall hangings. A photographer found a niche photographing dancers and doing head-shots for student actors. A graphic designer found she could profitably market her services to campus clubs and organizations. A couple of groups have organized to make short films, one of which turned into an hour-long feature. Two record labels have formed, one still resident in the Center. We have had more than a dozen such enterprises in our short history. All the students get coaching from the two professionals who are resident counselors, are continually encouraged to operate according to business principles, to do all the requisite planning, book and record-keeping and so on. The goal is to make each individual feel and act as if they are running a business. The learning is almost all in the doing.

Does CELEB differ in any way from an incubator found in a typical entrepreneurship unit?

CELEB is a bit different from the normal incubator, I think, although I am none too sure what is “normal.” The biggest difference is that most of these students are not business students. They tend to have minimal exposure to class room instruction in the tools of business they are to use. We try to get them to learn as they need, on the go. Of course, that is the way many actual entrepreneurs do it. Curricular support consists of two or three courses and not all those venturing have had even those. One could argue that this is not enough. But there are limits to how much a small college with no significant business department can do and there is a lot students can learn on their own if given lots of opportunity and an occasional push. There is, however, lots of enthusiasm.

How many students participate in CELEB each year and what kind of outcomes have you seen for them?

Fifteen to twenty students annually have participated in real, continuing depth. These are the folks for whom CELEB is a central college highlight. I think the progress of these students is amazing. We are always working to use CELEB as a vehicle for developing increased confidence and self-agency. We talk about entrepreneurship as competence in gathering resources and plans sufficient to realize one’s self-selected goals and observe that that sort of competence is a life-skill. Students get it. One of our alumni spent several years developing a travel magazine for teens and college-age youth. That effort morphed into a web-based publication and has become the young woman’s career. She has seed money, employees… She is doing it! One of our acting owners of Gallery ABBA was selected for a major internship in the New York arts scene. She was chosen from over 100 applicants on the basis that she had the experience of running her own gallery in college. I have no doubt that their interest in pursuing their own ventures increases markedly. I admit that too much of this view is the result of testimonials. We have to figure out how to document these claims.

We have had about fifty students participating yearly. Students sometimes come to hear speakers or attend other events. They may join us as we trek to CEO (the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization) in the fall term or to SEA in the spring. Many come to Gallery openings, or show objects in the Gallery. Many others come to panel discussions.
CELEB hosts many arts business and non-arts based ventures. But we also have a resident, student-run foundation called “the WISE (“What Is Social Excellence”) Foundation. This group runs as a business and undertakes the task of learning about the foundations industry as they pursue their own interests. WISE promotes a number of campus events that wind-up relating to social policy, social entrepreneurship, and so on. The point is that while a significant number of students get involved in CELEB in real depth, the programs touch lots of students on campus. Many of those touched have occasion to wonder what entrepreneurship is, to find out something from the exposure, and these folks often follow up. When I first started, “entrepreneurship” was kind of a bad word on campus. I think we have come close to overcoming that totally.

Beloit is a small liberal arts college. Do you see your efforts as an expansion of the liberal arts mission or meeting the needs of arts students?

I see CELEB as a fulfillment of the liberal arts mission. Students must not only become informed, critical thinkers, important as that obviously is. They must also become more competent doers and that is where we and other good colleges tend to fall down. We address a need for arts students. Students need to understand two things: The first is that they can turn their passion into a living and do not need to "sell out" the day after graduation. The second is that like it or not, they will be businesspersons and they better learn - at least a little bit - about how to negotiate that fact. But this is a need of all students. If we are to help students to achieve fulfilling lives marked by excellence in performance and in public service, we have to give them not only the tools to criticize, evaluate and think, we need to give them tools to make their actions effective. What else is college for? That's CELEB’s special niche.

You've written on entrepreneurship education in liberal arts environments. Can you see entrepreneurship education as a valuable experience for those in other disciplines such as philosophy, rhetoric and the classics?

Entrepreneurship education is valuable for everybody. Not everybody should become an entrepreneur. But everyone should have exposure. Having a dream to pursue and achieve is not a cliche. It is no joke. People really do do this and it is not rocket science. All students need to know at least that much. All students need to be bold about whatever it is that they wish to accomplish. I would be happy just to be able to help students to realize that one's life starts now and that they should not wait for it to begin on the day after graduation

What does entrepreneurship education add to the liberal arts experience?

It is no small matter that entrepreneurship education, especially when relying heavily upon experiential techniques, adds a refreshing change of pace to the offering of routine, rigorous, academic class work. When I started, I became immediately aware that some students who are talented at getting things done are bored with coursework that calls upon persons to engage in endless contemplation without ever providing much opportunity for action. Such students do not perform well academically as a result and then sell themselves short. Academic performance is highly rewarded, but their particular skills are not and they feel badly about it. I have seen case after case where a student, when offered the opportunity to sparkle by doing practical organizational tasks that other often cannot do, experiences a transformation in self-esteem. That translation then leads, almost miraculously in some cases, to better performance in routine class work, too. I often joke that I teach entrepreneurship as therapy - but actually - there is something to that.

How has CELEB been received by the arts units at Beloit?

CELEB has been received fairly well by the arts departments at Beloit. The acceptance is more in approval in principle than participation. The fine artists have gotten involved to a gratifying degree. They still evince a natural preference for "Art," as they should, but are willing to encourage kids to show and sell their pieces. They are not strongly anti-commerce. Music has been very accepting with a key resource - an expert willing to supervise sound engineering. Dance has become involved off and on but, in truth, has contributed as much as CELEB has to advising about careers and business aspects of dance. Theatre, interestingly, has kept its distance. Not much ideological here, I do not think: one of my best faculty colleagues is in theatre. But these folks, frankly, are so busy that I think it is difficult for them to step too far beyond their intrinsic workload.

You've written that entrepreneurship is an art that can be taught. Can you expand on this?

The first thing you learn as an entrepreneurship teacher is that whether at civic meetings, coffee klatches or cocktail parties, everybody will tell you entrepreneurship cannot be taught. The belief is that it is an ingrained spirit - an urge that comes from some weird collection of psychological traits. The belief is that entrepreneurs are born, not made. Thinking of entrepreneurship as an art helps to clarify this whole issue. Also, people tend to think that great artists and performers are born, not made. The fact is that one cannot make someone into a great entrepreneur, just as one cannot teach someone to be a great pianist or painter. What teachers endeavor to do is to make persons not into great pianists or painters but into better pianists and painters. Similarly, education can make someone into a better entrepreneur. It is a philosophy here that people get better through practice when their efforts are closely observed and critiqued. So maybe not only is entrepreneurship an art but also that it can be best taught the way the arts are taught.

You can email Jerry