BCBusiness + Simon Fraser University and University of British Columbia
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Credit: Beedie School of Business, SFU. SFU undergraduate students at the JDC West business competition, hosted by theBeedie School of Business last January.

Business students want hireable skills and room to create in their undergrad programs, and B.C. schools are making their dreams a reality

Enrolment numbers in Canadian universities have risen steadily over the past nine years averaging 3% per year between 2014 and 2019. Business and management programs continue to post the highest gains at around +5,700 per year, and these numbers tell a positive tale for undergrad programs in Canada. However, with a closer look, another story emerges—no longer satisfied to apply on the merit of reputation alone, students are looking for more in their undergrad business degrees.

Technology, employer demand and the cost of living has students wanting an education that leaves them with something tangible. They want mentorship, support and the flexibility to run with their ideas, and they want space to create and innovate. They seek engagement and experience, and the ability to customize a selection of demonstrably hireable skills.

Entrepreneurship@UBC is a supported entrepreneur program that helps UBC students, faculty and recent alumni take ideas and research innovations to market through venture building in two major ways, says Kari LaMotte, managing director with entrepreneurship@UBC.

“We work with researchers to identify potential market opportunities for their innovations and help them build the executive teams they need to take those ideas to market,” she says.

“We also work with entrepreneurs in the university who want to found their own company by helping them find product-market fit through our incubator, and then by helping them build their company through our Accelerator, HATCH.”

As the resulting ventures grow, they gain early market entry and traction through the HATCH Accelerator, a collaboration between entrepreneurship@UBC and the Institute for Computing, Information and Cognitive Systems (ICICS). Ventures also gain access to the UBC Seed Fund while in the program.

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Zack Eberwein was a fourth year applied science undergrad student when he participated in the Incubator program and subsequent Accelerator program through entrepreneurship@UBC to develop an idea he and two friends had to revolutionize joint bracing technology.

Today he is CEO of Stoko—a producer of athletic apparel that offers joint support equivalent to a rigid brace. Set to launch in fall of 2020, Stoko offers a clothing solution for athletes rehabilitating an injury, waiting for surgery, looking for an alternative to a bulky or expensive brace, or simply wishing to reduce the risk of injury in the first place. 

Eberwein and his colleagues, Kevin Reilly, PhD and Scott Morgan, former Olympian, entered the Incubator program two-and-a-half years ago, and as novice entrepreneurs with little understanding of the steps to take or the order to take them in, entrepreneurship@UBC was a game-changer.

“It really took us from three friends working toward one big dream to three people building a company,” Eberwein says. “It drastically changed our road map and how we went about solving problems and prototyping.”

By the time they were accepted into the HATCH Accelerator program they had access to a 3,000-square-foot maker space containing otherwise prohibitively expensive equipment, such as 3D printers, laser cutters, plasma cutters, water jet cutters, a full metal shop and space for an advanced knitting machine used to make textiles.

“This improved our path from a scrappy start-up to a venture with the tools to make our product properly,” Eberwein says. “Having the space to call home really elevates you and helps you take yourself seriously and helps others to take you seriously, too.”

Through the Hatch Accelerator, early ventures receive access to subject matter experts (SMEs) who roll up their sleeves and pitch in to help the ventures get off the ground. Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIRs) show new founders the ins and outs of running a venture.

“For Life Science and Medical Device companies, we have a strong team of individuals with experience in taking research through the regulatory hurdles needed in order to prove efficacy and safety, and then in forming and developing companies around this research,” says LaMotte.

At SFU’s Beedie School of Business, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs, Peter Tingling says students need a variety of pathways. In addition to a thriving innovation and entrepreneurial program, students are interested in other aspects of management and seek hands-on, practical skills that will help them be successful across a variety of potential careers. Experiential education in their undergraduate program engages students to shape their futures, acquire the skills they need for success, and gain hard and fast experience of their choosing. 

Tingling says the school is designed to foster an active rather than passive environment where students can “learn to swim in the shallow end”—a metaphor referring to support students receive in achieving gradual but real-life experience and milestones.

“In their first term, for example, all high school transfer students are put into groups to analyze a real business case and defend their recommendations in front of industry judges over a single competitive weekend,” Tingling says. “It really is impressive what they do.”

Students who enjoy and excel at this type of “stand and deliver” case competition can take this up a few notches in their subsequent years and compete internationally, as SFU recently did at the Universidad Panamericana’s international case competition.

Twelve schools, including some of the world’s most renowned, like Copenhagen, Madrid’s IE Business School and University of Alberta, spent a week in Guadalajara, Mexico in what Tingling calls “an Olympic level of competition”.

“It involved multiple rounds, and the final case was developing an action plan for a small tequila distillery competing with the likes of Patrón and Casamigos,” Tingling says. “A panel of judges, including the CEO of the company, grilled the students and ours placed first.” (View a wrap up video of the competition at https://youtu.be/xqxl4HHfcHw)

SFU’s Passport is another tool for equipping students with life-lasting business skills. Nine mandatory workshops take place over the course of a student’s degree covering topics such as resume building, mock interviews, and the Marketing Me session, which includes networking 101 with industry professionals.

“We are extremely fortunate to have such good relationships with so many of our business alumni and community organizations,” Tingling says. “They help walk our students through important core skills such as introductions, making eye contact and how to engage in small talk. This is designed to help students compete—after all, you only get one chance to make a first impression.”

Coming to SFU is like coming to the buffet at the Bellagio, Tingling says, because no matter how hungry you are, you can’t eat everything.

“There truly is a plethora of activities and events, and our advisors help students devise a custom-tailored plan that will enable each one become the professional that they wish to be,” Tingling says.

Created by BCBusiness in partnership with Simon Fraser University and University of British Columbia