Virtual Global Entrepreneurship Exchange Program Keeps the Spirit Alive
By Ed Brennen
“I didn’t want it to end,” said Gittens, a chemistry major from the University of Guyana. “I wish it could have lasted another week.”
Scores of undergraduate and graduate college students from around the world usually travel to UMass Lowell each July for two weeks of entrepreneurship, innovation and cultural exchange through the GE2 program. When the coronavirus pandemic made that impossible this summer, GE2 Director Ashwin Mehta and his team scrambled to put together a free, one-week virtual workshop instead.
“We had students from many universities — in China, India, Thailand — all expecting to come here. When we had to cancel, we were concerned,” said Mehta, an associate teaching professor of marketing, entrepreneurship and innovation who founded GE2 in 2014.
The virtual version turned out to be a resounding success. More than 640 students and faculty from 23 countries signed up for the daily 90-minute workshop sessions, which were led by Manning School faculty on Zoom. They covered topics including business model generation, “customer discovery” and venture financing.
Lydiah Zachary, a doctoral student in entrepreneurship and small business development at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, had been looking forward to coming to Lowell this summer, but she appreciated the online version.
“It was much more than I anticipated,” said Zachary, who enjoyed learning real-world lessons from Prof. Yi Yang, Assoc. Prof. Michael Ciuchta and adjunct faculty members Dave Vatalaro and Bill Yelle. “These professors are entrepreneurs with a wealth of experience, so it’s really interesting to hear what they have to say.”
Manning School Dean Sandra Richtermeyer, who led a session with Yelle on venture implementation, was “inspired” to see students interacting and collaborating so well despite language barriers and time zone differences. She encouraged them to continue their entrepreneurial efforts wherever they live.
“That’s what this is all about: starting new ventures and contributing to a healthy and prosperous global society,” Richtermeyer said.
Of the 640 registrants, 245 signed up for a free, certificate-track version of the workshop that gave them the opportunity to compete in an idea pitch contest. Working in small, multinational teams of around five students, the groups had to come up with a business venture in one of five categories: technology, health, social, environment, or small and medium-sized enterprises. Several of the projects addressed COVID-19, including one from Gittens’ team that proposed making personal protective equipment from hemp.
For Matt Zablocki, one of around 15 UML students who took part in the session, collaborating remotely with students from Japan, Vietnam and Myanmar was “one of the most valuable portions of this workshop.”
“It was truly unique having to break down the tasks to complete the project when there was a 12- to 13-hour time difference with other students,” said Zablocki, who took part in the workshop as part of his three-credit Global Entrepreneurship and Innovation summer course. “It was a great experience.”
At week’s end, 45 teams submitted three-minute PowerPoint presentations to YouTube, where the public had a chance to vote on them with “likes” (several of the projects racked up over 4,000 views). The five most-liked projects in each category advanced to the judges round, where the top three were awarded cash prizes ($250 for first-place teams; $200 for second; and $150 for third).
Mehta thanked the program sponsors — Jaishree and Desh Deshpande; the Deshpande Foundation; David Gagnon ’90 at KPMG; Wayne Cole ’90 at MKS Instruments; and the Independent University Alumni Association — for making the prize money possible.
Takashi Ando, whose team won the health category, was among five MBA students from Japan to participate through the Manning School’s partnership with Abitus, an executive education firm based in Tokyo.
A former cardiovascular surgeon who now works for a medical device company, Ando had hoped to travel to UML from Japan for the summer session.
“Hopefully I can come next year for my graduation ceremony,” Ando said.
Myat Su Khaing, whose team took second place in the social category, was among 88 students from Myanmar to participate. An MBA student at the University of Thai Chamber of Commerce, Khaing works in procurement supply management for the United Nations.
Coming into the program, she wasn’t sure if she was cut out to be an entrepreneur. “But after attending this workshop, I feel motivated,” Khaing said. “If I try, I can be an entrepreneur.”
The GE2 program is an initiative of the Jack M. Wilson Center for Entrepreneurship.
“Entrepreneurship unites the world at a time when the world needs a lot of uniting,” the center’s founder, UML Distinguished Professor Jack Wilson, told students. “This workshop to me was a symbol of how you overcome every challenge to keep everything together.”
Now that he’s seen the demand for a virtual version of GE2, Mehta said it could continue post-pandemic.
“Being able to work together remotely is critical in a global economy,” Mehta said. “We’ll see if we can make it another signature program of the Wilson Center for Entrepreneurship.”