Idaho Entrepreneurs Program
George Tanner is an ideas man.
Just not his own ideas.
“I don’t have good ideas,” said Tanner, director of the Idaho Entrepreneurs program in the University of Idaho’s College of Business and Economics (CBE). “But the truth is, in entrepreneurship, it’s not so much the idea as it is the execution.”
That’s why his role as coach and mentor of the dozens of ideas percolating through the program is so important.
“I’m really careful to not say, ‘That’s a dumb idea.’ I’m older, I’m in a different place. Things pop up and go that I would never think would be successful,” Tanner said. “It’s less about the idea, and more about the business model — have they thought through the idea? Do they have a target market?”
Those are the lessons Tanner tries to impart as he pushes his students to think beyond the idea to the practical application of running a business — and guides them to success.
Learning to Pitch
The Idaho Entrepreneurs program began in the early 2000s as Vandal Innovation and Enterprise Works, or VIEW. When Tanner joined the program in 2012, the college gave it a new name and a renewed focus.
The program’s goal is to offer interdisciplinary, university-wide training to help students develop an entrepreneurial mindset. Participants include students from nearly every college at U of I.
“The best startups are always collaborative; they involve multiple colleges,” Tanner said. “Every winner I’ve had has been more than one college involved. It’s an engineer, a scientist, a food scientist, a business student, an accountant.”
The signature events of the program are Idaho Pitch every April and the twice-a-year Business Plan Competition. That’s where teams of students in the program get the opportunity to sell their idea to real-world investors, CEOs and business leaders from across Idaho. While there is real money on the line — the teams can win thousands of dollars in startup funds for their ideas — the bigger benefit comes from honing and practicing their pitching skills.
“You can pitch 20, 25 times and work that room. You get feedback every time you pitch someone,” Tanner said. “By the time the night’s over, you’ve got a new skill that will translate to a career.”
For his part, Tanner considers himself less of a teacher and more of a coach.
“We teach classes, and then we do lots of development. This is a very experiential program,” Tanner said. “We’re trying to take all those things students have learned and cap that off with a startup experience — teach you how to go through ideating a new business, planning and modeling, learning how to pitch it, actually get students ready for real investor pitches.”
Students interested in pursuing entrepreneurship don’t have to commit to majoring in business. CBE offers an entrepreneurship academic certificate. At just 12 credits — or about a semester’s worth of study — students from any discipline can take courses in entrepreneurship, new venture creation and accounting. There are also entrepreneurial emphasis areas for those studying human resources, management and marketing, and Tanner is working on a minor in entrepreneurship.
Learning how to sell an idea and the logistics of starting a business can benefit any degree, he said. And the payout is real. Since coming to U of I, Tanner estimates businesses started in Idaho Entrepreneurs have received around $5 million in investments, with $750,000 given away during the pitch and business plan events.
The entire program — including the funds awarded at each event — is privately funded and more than 100 different organizations have participated as judges for the contests. And while the students are limited in how they choose to spend their prize money, most use it to invest in their ideas.
“They leave us with a bunch of checks — with money and some skills. But man, that next year or two, if they’re really doing this, it’s like getting a graduate degree in entrepreneurship. It’s fun to see that happen,” Tanner said. “I feel fortunate not to have a real job. I get to play with the startups and work with young students. It’s the best.”
“They leave us with a bunch of checks — with money and some skills. But man, that next year or two, if they’re really doing this, it’s like getting a graduate degree in entrepreneurship. It’s fun to see that happen.” George Tanner, director of the Idaho Entrepreneurs program
Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications and Marketing
Published in the fall 2018 issue of Here We Have Idaho.