Architectural photographer Heather Conley calls the people at the University of Hartford's Entrepreneurial Center a trusted team in her village of advisers, mentors and supporters.
She's participated in several of its offerings, including free workshops, the Women's Business Roundtable, technical assistance programs and small business training. She has worked for three years with a business adviser there who was trained as a lawyer and whom Conley calls her machete for the adviser's ability to help her cut through challenges.
"I've always wanted to work for myself, I just couldn't figure out how, but I always had these creative ideas," said Conley, who launched Heather Conley Photography in 2009 after working 25 years in the corporate world. "At the heart of everything, I'm an artist — and what the center is really propelling me and helping me do is to be a business person."
The Entrepreneurial Center, part of the University of Hartford's Barney School of Business, is among a growing number of programs offered by colleges and universities in the region to help aspiring or existing entrepreneurs build the knowledge base to start a business or advance one.
Some programs, like those through the Entrepreneurial Center, don't offer college credit. Others, including at the Barney School, UConn, Trinity College and Post University, offer credits, entrepreneurial minors or tracks, internships or other academic building blocks useful to running a business. Schools, like the state at large, are increasing their focus on entrepreneurship as a critical element in the state's economy.
Conley — who photographs buildings for architects, builders, developers and others to showcase their work for marketing and other purposes — said entrepreneurs who may think they don't need some training or assistance are missing out.
"We live in an environment and a business culture that is constantly changing and if you're not willing to change … then you're not going to survive, you're not going to thrive," she said, referring to the center assisting in areas like social media, and providing experts, speakers and networking events.
With small business the growth sector in the local economy, Tim Cresswell, dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs at Trinity College, has seen interest in entrepreneurial education increase among students, faculty and even parents.
Entrepreneurship is "a slightly difficult thing to grasp because it's not an established field of study, or a particular way of teaching, so really a lot of it's about combining academic work with internships, with the ability to connect with entrepreneurs who have been successful or even haven't been successful — they've got lessons to teach," too, Cresswell said.
For undergraduates, Trinity has a minor in formal organizations, which includes an entrepreneurship track, internships and visiting entrepreneurs who share their experiences with students.
Trinity also is considering entrepreneurship-related education and a master's program at the new site it's developing in downtown Hartford at Constitution Plaza, although nothing is definite yet, Cresswell said.
Trinity also hopes to be part of the new innovation places program headed by CTNext to develop certain areas in Connecticut into magnets for talent. The University of Hartford expects to have a prominent role in the city's proposal as an innovation place as well.
Lessons learned in liberal arts — including critical thinking and literacy — help entrepreneurs adapt to a changing environment and make it easier to change careers in a flexible economy, he said.
Kaitlin Lewis, a Trinity senior majoring in political science and minoring in formal organizations with an entrepreneurship track, would agree. Her formal organizations classes introduced her to new career opportunities and she's now leaning toward a career in business instead of politics. She said her liberal arts education, with Trinity's small classes and focus on peer collaboration, would help her if she chooses that route.
"If you want to go into business, you need to learn how to speak to people, to communicate to people, you need to know how to write," Lewis said. "I think that gives you a basis for no matter what you want to do."
Post University in Waterbury had an entrepreneurship concentration in its MBA program, but found entrepreneurs entering it already knew what their product was going to be and what they hoped to do with their business; instead, they needed skills offered in the MBA program's other concentrations, including leadership, finance and marketing, said Carolyn Shiffman, director of graduate business programs and academic program manager for MBA Leadership.
The MBA program includes courses in marketing strategies, competitive intelligence, business strategy and planning, finance, leadership and project management.
"Our MBA program, in general, provides a lot of background for entrepreneurs," she said.
Michelle Cote, managing director of the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) at the UConn School of Business, said it's a great time to be an aspiring entrepreneur at UConn and statewide based on the resources available to help them.
For example, she noted that UConn, Connecticut Innovations and Webster Bank announced in August they are establishing a $1.5-million UConn Innovation Fund to support early-stage startups affiliated with UConn.
"Entrepreneurship has definitely sort of steadily climbed in popular recognition and popular culture in the last five years and I think that it has to do with economic shifts within the country; I think it's a trend that has been growing nationwide," Cote said.
CCEI has tailored its programs to offer educational opportunities for both aspiring student and faculty entrepreneurs across all of UConn's campuses, Cote said.
Classes include an innovation accelerator and biomedical entrepreneurship for undergraduate and graduate students. The biomedical entrepreneurship class is focused on innovation and commercialization. The innovation accelerator is a team class where students work in small groups of undergrad and graduate students as consultants on behalf of early-stage, UConn-affiliated firms.
Other programs include Accelerate UConn, which takes mostly technology-focused entrepreneurial teams from UConn schools through the process of developing a scalable and replicable business model for their technology over seven weeks, Cote said.
CCEI also launched a summer fellowship program for 10 UConn-affiliated teams to develop their ventures with help from experts over eight weeks of intensive programming. The teams, picked from 35 that applied, received $15,000 in startup capital. The top five teams emerging from the summer will be competing for another $15,000 in a judging event Sept. 29.
Nicole Wagner, CEO of LambdaVision Inc., a UConn biotech startup she co-founded in 2009 with professor Robert Birge and which is seeking to commercialize a protein-based retinal implant to restore vision for people with retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration, participated in the CCEI summer fellowship program.
She's also tapped various other resources through UConn and the state to help advance the company in its early development and preclinical testing as it works toward hoped-for human testing and institutional investment or strategic partnership. The company is part of the UConn Technology Incubator Program and will be opening a lab in the Farmington incubator in October.
"They helped us in terms of writing proposals, identifying commercial opportunities, helping us to build out our team and find mentors and people who are great advisers to us," said Wagner, who got her Ph.D. in molecular biology at UConn and is an assistant research professor there.
UConn doesn't offer an entrepreneurship major, but there's a minor in entrepreneurship in the Business School. There's also a new creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship minor that's a partnership between the schools of engineering, education and business, and there's talk about having concentrations developed in some of the graduate programs, Cote said.
The University of Hartford offers an entrepreneurial studies major and minor, said Martin Roth, dean of the Barney School of Business.
The university also has gotten into more hands-on experiential learning opportunities, he said. That can happen in a program like the Micro Business Incubator, in which students work one on one with small business owners, primarily on Albany Avenue near campus.
"It gives the student the opportunity of really getting first-hand experience working with that business and it gives the business the benefit of getting the students' knowledge and the students' skills to help them," Roth said.
For graduate students, the school offers its Barney Graduate Consulting Service, through which current graduate students and recent alumni provide consultative service to small business owners and to local governments primarily in West Hartford and Hartford, Roth said. The students who are gaining skills and tools in various management areas are able to apply that knowledge in helping a small business address its problems.
"What we're doing as a business school is we're helping the students gain good skills so that if they want to try to start a startup and grow their own business … they'll be able to have a good chance of doing that successfully."
A lot of the Entrepreneurial Center's classes are free or low-cost, said Milena Erwin, program manager at the Women's Business Center, the largest initiative of the Entrepreneurial Center that focuses on helping women in business.
There's also one-on-one advising and technical assistance programs like photographer Conley enrolled in that provided her a bank of 18 hours of technical assistance for $100. Through that, she used a lawyer to help her complete some legal documents.
Conley also has attended the center's June matchmaking events, a "speed networking" where she's met 15 companies in a day and landed clients. She also recently attended a workshop to learn about a corporate procurement portal to access companies seeking outside services.
"Those kind of opportunities are what the university brings," Conley said. She hopes to see the center expand because "I think more and more people are going to work for themselves."