Beyond business as usual

Eric Ling

At the School of Business & Entrepreneurship (SOBE) at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy (CVCA) in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, we like to do things differently. In fact, if you stepped into the SOBE classroom, you will find it to be a bit of an odd place. Some students are in teams, others are running around the classroom, some working on computers, others sorting through inventory, and some just joking around with their friends. You might be hard-pressed to find the teacher as he has vacated his spot at the front of the classroom. Instead, you see him running around putting out fires and answering questions across the room, while looking up resources for another team. Yes – it is a little bit different, but it is by design. What follows is my approach to designing a program that encourages deep learning and student buy-in.

The Program
SOBE has four courses that students take as a cohort over two years – Accounting, Marketing, Entrepreneurship, and Business Management. These courses are designed to cover the four major channels of the business profession – mathematical, creative, innovative and organizational. The hope is that by taking these four courses, students will get to experience each of these channels and will be better informed when choosing their major, following graduation.

Each course is designed with an authentic capstone project. I wanted every course to end with an experience that helps students build their experiential portfolio, create real value in the marketplace, and present in a public forum. So, each of these projects meets the following criteria:

  1. It must be REAL! Students are providing something that is actually needed or is of real value now. This is not just a project, but a responsibility. It is not for a grade, it is for a client. This makes it incredibly important for the students, as it is rare for them to be entrusted with such a responsibility.
  2. It must have depth. This means that there is no right or wrong answer. There are, in fact, many ways to be successful. It should require critical thinking, outside research, and significant effort to do well.
  3. It must be public. This means that students present to an audience that is authentic. Sometimes this is to the general public, other times it is to a small team of invested business professionals. This public “showing” encourages every student to step up their game.

With this in mind, here are the four major projects students complete around which each course is designed:

Accounting: Shya Designs books
Students run the books for Shya Designs, our student-run business. This requires them to apply their accounting learning to our real-world books. They provide and present these to the senior SOBE students who run the business.

Marketing: Small business event
Students collaborate with local small businesses from their own community to develop a marketing plan. This requires multiple visits to the store, meetings with the owners, investigation of best practices, and the development of actual marketing materials (ads, commercials). They present these marketing plans at a large public event in the Spring. At this event, they are judged by a panel of professional marketers for a chance at prizes. In addition, the small businesses have the opportunity to adopt their marketing materials free of charge.

Entrepreneurship: Start-up businesses
Students design their own start-up business from ideation to final prototype and proof of concept. They walk through every step of starting a business, develop a robust business plan, and present in a large pitch competition. Here they are judged by a panel of investors with a chance to walk away with $5,000 in prize money. They are then eligible to pitch in several regional competitions for a chance at additional accolades.

Business management: Shya Designs
Students apply for leadership positions through a rigorous interview process. Once the leadership is established, students work throughout the year to help build the success of this business in various teams ranging from marketing to procurement and operations. They manage every aspect of the business, make every major decision, and chart the course of the business for the entire year. They conclude this with a presentation of a year-end report in an official investor meeting. Here they present the goals they establish, the work they did to accomplish that goal, where they ended up, the conclusions that they drew from it, and what is next for their area of focus.

The classroom
A program that emphasizes real experience is held accountable to a higher degree. My students complete real projects for real clients. They present their work to panels of experts rather than just a classroom of their peers. Because of this authenticity, students look at each major project as a challenge rather than a project that needs to be turned in. Like any business professional, my students are encouraged to put their best foot forward because there are real expectations from real people that really need what my students are doing.

With such high expectations, students experience a great deal of stress as they work through these challenging projects. It is within this context that the teacher matters. The teacher has three main hats to wear. The first hat is that of the encourager. I truly believe that every student has something incredible to offer. I believe this because I see it every year. A student that has been labelled inadequate and thus disregarded in the traditional academic classroom, thrives in these real-world projects! With this as the guiding philosophy, the teacher rotates to every student over the course of every class and encourages them. This is different for every child, but I normally ask questions. The more I get to know a student, the more I can affirm who they are and challenge them to use their strengths to make a difference.

The second hat is that of a resourcer. Students can often times feel lost as they are doing these major projects for the first time. I dig up and provide resources for students that help them move the ball forward on their projects. This not only directly helps students at that moment, it also models how they can dig into the resources for any problem that they are hoping to solve. This realization builds confidence and students will soon be excited to take on any challenge when they know that they can find and employ the right resources.

The final hat is that of the safety net. Every student matters as a person. I tell my students frequently that they are each individually more important than any project or program at any time. When they are overwhelmed and it seems like everything is crashing down around them, which sometimes happens in these high-stakes projects, I am there to catch them. I frequently give students days off, help them complete a tedious task, or simply take things off of their plates so that they can have a better life balance. When students recognize that you care about them more than the project, they will begin to feel like the program is a safe place. It is at this point that it begins to feel like home where we each care for one another. And this is the magic sauce. No program can be successful without the people in it buying in.

Shya Designs
What we are perhaps best known for in SOBE is our international business, Shya Designs. In this business, students import bags and textiles from a co-op of Rwandan women who are survivors of the genocide. We buy the product directly from the women, and they use this money to take care of their families, send their children to school, and rebuild their communities. Our students have built the American market for these bags and textiles from scratch. Our students work in teams to complete the finance, procurement, sales, operations, and marketing for Shya Designs. Each team is led by a student-executive that achieves this position through a rigorous interview process. Our students set goals and objectives for the year and then work tirelessly in the midst of everything else we ask of them, to build the business in every aspect. With a goal of $20,000 in sales this year, our current crop of leadership has taken Shya Designs to new heights. Within this Shya Designs business model, students can have a real impact, learn and develop real business skills, and be a part of a true legacy. In May of each year, the current seniors pass the business on to the current juniors. This passing of the baton is meaningful as it represents the passing on of the entire program as a new group of leadership promises again to take us to new heights.

Here is a note from our current CFO, Naomi Richmond, about her experience in SOBE and Shya Designs: “My name is Naomi Richmond, and at 17 years old, I am the current CFO of Shya Designs. I lead the Finance Team comprised of three male peers in my class. Our responsibilities include accounting, financial requisitions, budgeting, making decisions specific to spending money, and working to help Shya Designs as a whole. Our involvement extends beyond the classroom tasks into big events and pop-up-shops in order to increase sales. We run Shya Designs, a non-profit business that directly benefits widowed women who were impacted by the Rwandan Genocide by selling the goods and textiles they produce. What is unique about Shya Designs is that it is student-run as a part of the School of Business and Entrepreneurship at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy. By allowing teenagers to run an international, free trade business, we gain irreplaceable real-world experience at a young age. This experience extends past just business aspects; we have learned how to be servant leaders by helping empower these women to rise up and break through their difficult circumstances. Beyond the strictly financial aspects of the role, I have personally acquired new leadership skills, such as delegation, motivating others, and accountability for timely execution. For me, knowing women are underrepresented in CFO positions across US companies, it has taken me from just an average girl at my school to a confident female leader walking into college and eventually the business world.” – Naomi Richmond

In conclusion, we at SOBE do things differently and will always do things differently because we have discovered that it is only through stepping into the unknown that we truly discover the incredible impact that a small group of students in Northeast Ohio can have on this wonderful world.

The author is a teacher at the School of Business & Entrepreneurship (SOBE) at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy (CVCA) in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He graduated Kent State University, and on the side plays music with his wife. He can be reached at [email protected].

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