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Students Immersed in Innovation in India

Entrepreneurship Course Teaches How to Create Solutions from Chaos

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Students from the "Global Immersion in Innovation and Entrepreneurship" course get together for dinner at a local home during their two-week stay in Hubli, India, over winter break.

02/24/2015
By Ed Brennen

Manning School of Business students Rebekah Dufrene and Joanne Pesnell had never worked for a startup company before. Yet there they were last month, halfway around the world in Hubli, India, telling the investor behind their new mobile app why he needed to pump the brakes on a public launch.

“It was very intimidating,” says Dufrene, a graduate student pursuing her MBA.

It was also Dufrene’s favorite part of the two-week “Global Immersion in Innovation and Entrepreneurship” course that she and 16 fellow UMass Lowell students participated in over winter break.

Now in its second year, the intensive three-credit study abroad program is a collaboration between UMass Lowell and B.V. Bhoomaraddi College of Engineering and Technology (BVB) in Hubli. Led by MSB lecturers Ashwin Mehta and Deborah Finch and Nitin Kulkarni, an associate professor in BVB’s Department of Management Studies, the course is designed to teach entrepreneurship through multicultural and multidisciplinary activities.

“It’s a complete immersion,” says Finch, who was also part of the inaugural course that took nine students to India in January 2014. “You’re working with Indian students, living with them, being part of their community, and it’s 24/7 from the time you hit the ground.”

Organized chaos

This winter’s course featured a cross-section of doctoral, graduate and undergraduate students from the business, engineering, computer science, economics and nursing disciplines, along with 33 BVB undergraduate students. While many aspects of the program remained constant, including sightseeing excursions to Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra, Mehta says the structure of the course itself was changed to be a little less … structured.

Rather than starting the program in the classroom and spelling out all the steps of the entrepreneurial process, Mehta says the 50 students were divided into nine teams and turned loose for the first two days at different nonprofits, hospitals and technology companies around Hubli, where they gained insight into the organizations’ processes and challenges.

“We believe that learning entrepreneurship isn’t like A-B-C-D, so we purposely said, ‘Go out and create chaos,’ and then we systematically took them back in,” Mehta says.

Back in the classroom, the groups then learned the basics of entrepreneurship, heard from guest speakers and developed solutions for the organizations they visited. In the final class, students presented their solutions to representatives from the organizations.

“We let students make mistakes and figure their way out of it, which was a directed purpose in our mind,” Finch says. “It was a little startling for some students because they want it laid out, ‘Tell us what we need to do,’ so it was a really great.”

Pesnell, a senior majoring in business with a concentration in marketing and management, says the unique structure of the class helped prepare her professionally.

“At a job, you’re not always going to be told, ‘I want you to do this this, this and this.’ They’re going to say, ‘I want this to get done,’ and that’s it. And that’s exactly what happened in this class,” says Pesnell, one of several students who blogged about the experience.

Carrying the torch

Pesnell learned about the program last summer when she was asked to help host the 14 BVB students who came to UMass Lowell for the June course. Mehta says work is already underway on this summer’s course here in Lowell, which may include an additional half-dozen students from the South American country of Guyana.

While most of the students in Hubli worked with social organizations such as the Family Planning Association of India and Ushas Center for Exceptional Children, several groups continued work on projects that began at UMass Lowell, including the prosthetic limb startup Nonspec.

The mobile app that Dufrene and Pesnell worked on, Campus Cloud, is designed to help students easily discover events on campus that match their personal interests. After coming up with the concept during the summer course, BVB student Nilay Desai developed a prototype for the app back in Hubli.

When Dufrene and Pesnell met with Desai on the first day of class to see the prototype, they learned he wanted to release it to the public even though it was only half complete.

“He was worried about being the first one out there instead of getting it right,” Dufrene says. “Engineers really want to jump into it, solve a problem and go. As business students, Joanne and I are very analytical. We’ll stop and say, ‘Let’s think about this.’ So it was a good mix.”

Desai, as well as the investor, listened to the feedback and decided to delay the release. Instead, Campus Cloud will be tested at BVB this spring with the hope of rolling out at UMass Lowell next fall.

“I’m really excited to see this launch because I want to use it,” says Pesnell, who is even more excited to be part of the app’s creation. “It’s kind of humbling that, as a student, I’m doing something that’s impacting the future of their company.”