Keeping it real

Simulated businesses with make-believe P&L statements have no place in Professor John Castle’s “Creating a Company” course at the UW Foster Business School. Here, student businesses are awarded real money and expected to turn a profit in 10 weeks. There’s no text book or PowerPoint lectures. The emphasis is on relentless question and answer, to promote “on your feet” thinking—a necessity for young entrepreneurs.

That’s how Castle likes it. Over the duration of the two-quarter sequence, student teams write a business plan, meet with investors to obtain in-house funding, run the business and then exit the firm at the end of the second quarter. All profits are returned to the fund, which has become self-sustaining over time. Though profitability of the company is a major criterion for grading, the ability of the team to deal with the unexpected is considered more important.

The next Google is not a hoped-for endpoint of this entrepreneurship course, but personal enlightenment and growth certainly is. Castle tells students, “You may or may not learn to be a good entrepreneur here, but you will find out whether you want to be one.” Students learn by starting companies that, among other ideas, sell clothing, promote music events or serve a real and immediate need, as in the case of the MS Children’s Book.

The book was the inspiration of William Khazaal, father of two, who returned to the UW Foster School for his BA at age 33. In 2009 Khazaal was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Those with this devastating disease have good days and days when their energy is sapped. On bad days, Khazaal’s kids would be scared and confused, with no resources to help them understand what was happening with their dad. Like any good entrepreneur, Khazaal created one. His team, which included Molly Massena, Zac Raasch, Eugene Kim and Adam Greenberg, produced, printed and sold and donated more than 2,000 copies of MS Children’s Book, a 50-page picture book. The team also generated $12,000—the largest profit in class history.

While Khazaal’s story is uncommon, the take-home message of the course was. “My experience demonstrated the value of working as a team and letting my team members take more of the initiative. I learned how to plan events to get the results I wanted, rather than just jumping into things,” Khazaal reflected.

The book is only the beginning of the story. Khazaal plans to continue the effort past his graduation this fall, with more events to raise money for MS awareness and research.

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