Campaign Impact: Entrepreneurship Programs Enrich Education at Smith

Announcing winners of the 2017 Draper business competition hosted by Smith's Jill Ker Conway Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center.

You wouldn’t normally think of Smith as a traditional business school. And yet, this liberal arts college, which students routinely credit with teaching them how to think analytically, produces an impressive array of alumnae business leaders.

Smith has long enriched its curriculum with financial literacy courses and recently added a Global Financial Institutions concentration. And now—thanks to a visionary challenge gift that led to the Jill Ker Conway Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center—it has begun offering students a more expansive toolkit, with applications for just about any venture, business or otherwise. Through a variety of interconnected new programs, the Conway Center’s leadership has deconstructed the elements that make an entrepreneur—idea creation, opportunity recognition, problem-solving, innovative thinking—and is figuring out how to impart those ways of thinking to students.

At the Conway Center, under the leadership of administrator Monica Dean, students can take interterm courses in innovation and entrepreneurship, they can compete in elevator pitch contests, they can learn how to develop an idea into a project and even learn how to come up with the initial idea. Sometimes the end product might be a startup; other times it might be the answer to a big question. “We’re helping students create innovative solutions to problems. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re creating a new business,” says Dean, who previously taught entrepreneurship at Baruch University. “For instance, they might brainstorm a problem that they could tackle within the context of climate change.”

One student, Priscilla Semphere ’18 of Malawi, has written children’s books on growing up in Africa. She won a pitch contest and is working with Dean and entrepreneur-in-residence Rick Plaut to market and distribute her book. Another recent pitch winner developed an app to help college students budget their money.

The Conway Center also oversees the Draper Competition for Collegiate Women Entrepreneurs, which helps undergraduate entrepreneurs sharpen their business plans.

Separate from the Conway Center, the college is developing a four-year leadership development program, under the direction of Dean of the College Donna Lisker, that will be open to all students in all majors. Through a series of courses, internships and mentoring opportunities with alumnae, the program—made possible by a $10 million anonymous gift—will help students hone skills like public speaking, negotiation and conflict resolution. The idea, says Benita Jackson, associate professor of psychology, is to help students “incorporate ‘leader’ as part of their evolving sense of self.”

Students can fill in their liberal arts education with concrete business courses in an intensive business preparation program that Smith offers in partnership with the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. And the Lazarus Center for Career Development puts on weekend boot camps to prepare students for careers in finance.

All of these programs aim to build the capacity for business leadership at a nonbusiness school. “I’m working with young women in pursuit of their entrepreneurial dreams,” Dean says. “These students could be this generation’s serial entrepreneurs.”