Initiative With Entrepreneurship as its Cornerstone Reaches Across Disciplines

Steven Tello chats with students during a recent DifferenceMaker competition. Image by Tory Germann
Steven Tello, right, chats with students during a DifferenceMaker competition.

By David Perry

It’s a perfect intellectual weapon for music students to fight unemployment and anonymity. 

Nursing students are using it regularly to develop solutions to problems in the medical field. 

It’s a part of orientation and freshmen see it in action during convocation. And on one recent morning, nearly three dozen faculty and staff members spent a few hours learning how they can incorporate it – better known as the DifferenceMaker program – into the curriculum and support students who are involved in it. 

Since it was born four years ago, the DifferenceMaker program has grown steadily and become woven into the very fabric of the university, making problem-solvers and startup entrepreneurs out of dozens of students. There are competitions with prize money for winning pitches that have helped students advance their ideas and in some cases launch businesses. 

Steven Tello, the assistant vice chancellor of entrepreneurship and economic development who oversees the initiative, has made it his and his staff’s mission to spread the entrepreneurial gospel and demonstrate how the DifferenceMaker program can be woven into courses throughout the university. 

The recent session for faculty and staff attracted attendees from across the university, underscoring the idea that entrepreneurship and innovation are not restricted to science, technology and business.  In addition to faculty, the session also drew members of the library staff who wanted to learn how they can better help students doing research for their DifferenceMaker projects.

“We are exploring music and arts entrepreneurship ideas, implementing them in non-business school language,” said John-Morgan Bush, a music department lecturer and DifferenceMaker fellow. “Music students are taught plenty about how to play and what to play, but there’s very little about marketing themselves. This teaches entrepreneurial thinking.”

“I like that the focus [of DifferenceMakers] is cross-disciplinary,” said Mazen El Ghaziri, assistant professor in the School of Nursing. “I believe strongly that you can do more together than on your own.”

Tello said that in putting together the program, “we knew it had to be experiential, cross-disciplinary. Not just business, but engineering and science, too … and the projects had to include a solution that is sustainable over time.”

Over four years, the program has reached more than 20,000 students and awarded $153,000 in prize money. Teams have raised $368,000 on their own and filed for or had approved six team patents.  Thirteen for-profit and non-profit companies have resulted from the program.

Tello explained the prize money is “never a blank check – there is always a string attached. It says, nice work, now move your business forward.” One of the ways is a Summer Boot Camp, held over two sessions in June, for those who competed in DifferenceMaker events and wish to further improve their ideas.

“It’s really about helping students understand that if they want to, we can help them make a difference in the world. They can make changes by solving problems in an entrepreneurial way,” Tello said.