Young adults, fresh out of high school, have the opportunity to create a start up in 10 weeks. It’s part of the University of Denver’s Gateway to Business course, and in the span of the course, freshman and sophomores design, develop, test and market apps.
What do these kids know about business? Plenty, according to Dr. Stephen Haag, who has seen the creativity and performance of a generation that Time magazine famously called the “Me Me Me Generation.” Haag is a Professor in Residence in the Department of Business Information and Analytics at the university’s Daniels College of Business. Haag says his students are the “smartest group of kids I’ve ever seen – an unbelievable group of problem solvers.”
The Gateway to Business class capitalizes on three factors unique to the University of Denver:
1. A business class in need of revamping to stay relevant – “This particular course is an intro to business course – every business school in the country teaches it,” Haag explains. The class was typical in terms of what you think of when you picture introduction undergraduate classes: “Big [class] sections, a 600-page book – very dry,” he says.
2. A booming tech and start-up business economy – “The whole Denver-Boulder corridor is very much a tech hub for start-ups and entrepreneurship, and there’s a lot people here who want to be mentors,” Haag says. “They come in and act as mentors and want our students to succeed.”
3. A group of people with ambition to make money and make a difference – “These kids want to make money, but they want to address problems too. That’s the commonality we’re seeing more than anything else,” he says.
Rethinking Intro to Business
Knowing that this introduction course needed to be updated, Haag worked with others in academia to try to find the code to unlock the potential of the class. “We tried and failed at three different attempts to make this course come alive for students,” he says. After their trial-and-errors, the group was able to launch what’s now one of the most popular classes at the university.
Students in this class have 10 weeks to think of an idea for an app and build a plan for how it would launch. “[With] no business background, no business experiences, in 10 weeks they spin up a brand new app idea, and they write a business plan about how to bring it to market,” Haag explains.
Once students solidify the idea and business plan, they enter into the Madden Challenge, “Shark Tank style.” The challenge is named after John W. Madden Jr., a successful real estate developer who donated $125,000 in a funding agreement to the University of Denver. Most of the money is used as seed money for the winning apps.
Making a Difference
Many of the apps birthed from the Gateway to Business class have a common theme: social entrepreneurship. “This generation [is] exceedingly interested in saving part of the world, from a business perspective,” Haag observes. “We’re seeing a lot of stuff come out about curtailing domestic violence and abuse; a great app around helping first generation Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students get to college; we saw one about providing clean water to everyone in the world.”
Creating a Future
With a new group coming in every semester, and mentors like Joshua Ross, VP of Business Development at online fitness coaching platform Addaero, and Ray Schiavone, President and CEO of digital publishing solutions company Quark, the Gateway to Business class creates potential for great ideas and future collaborations from what some may consider the young, unexperienced and unqualified. “There was skepticism that we could pull it off,” Haag says. Some people thought, “‘Kids at 18 aren’t ready to write business plans, they can’t write marketing strategies.’”
Haag found the total opposite: “In reality, they use every social platform already. They’re ideally suited to use those marketing strategies — even more than what we could teach them,” he says. “They’re ideally suited because they’re not weighed down by the old ways.”
While the course continues to be offered at the University of Denver, Haag sees potential for larger scale collaboration and expansion. “What we’d like to do first is internal collaboration in the DU community – fold in the digital media studies group, 3D technologies, virtual reality, biological interfaces,” he explains.
“The future could include collaboration with other universities. I actually think it’d be a great idea to take it to high schools – we have to continually start thinking about younger and younger people being successful in the tech world,” he says. “These kids are so used to it, they see possibilities we don’t see.”