At a sports data hackathon a few years ago, Sarah Shujah, a U of T Scarborough liaison librarian, met many students with business concepts, but no plan to turn these ideas into reality.
“There were limited resources available for entrepreneurship education outside of academic courses,” Shujah says. “That’s where we pinpointed the need for open learning.”
Shujah is among the creators of the Entrepreneurship Open Learning Series, a new, free and publicly accessible course that is designed to help anyone who wants to start a business get their idea off the ground. Offered through U of T Scarborough’s The BRIDGE and U of T’s tri-campus entrepreneurship network, the five-part series includes interactive videos, worksheets, rubrics and other resources, hosted on the eCampusOntario open-source education platform.
“This series is for anyone who has a business idea but not a business background,” Shujah says.
The lessons cover explaining value propositions, defining target markets and evaluating the value of a product based on market research, among other topics.
“These modules will allow participants to gain basic business skills, build confidence in their idea, prepare for market entry and help them begin their journey in the business world,” says Bill McConkey, an assistant professor of management at U of T Scarborough, lead content developer of the series and academic director of the BRIDGE’s New Venture Program.
The first module is a self-reflection exercise: Participants learn what kind of entrepreneur they are and follow a guided reflection on their potential. In the second, they look at what consumers value in products and services and communicate their own business’ value. Final classes cover comparing competitors and evaluating new products and markets, along with leveraging market research and identifying industries.
The modules were tailored for a wide audience – not just those already familiar with business terms, says David Fenton, who is one of the series' contributors and the industry partnerships, innovation, and work-integrated learning lead in U of T Scarborough's department of management.
Fenton says the course also addresses the tendency to sensationalize entrepreneurship by associating it with Silicon Valley or shows like Dragon's Den.
“We wanted to cast a broader net to the reality of entrepreneurship, where it could be somebody providing a service or being an independent contractor,” Fenton says. “Entrepreneurship is not necessarily those soon-to-be tech giant types of scenarios.”
(From left to right) Sarah Shujah, Bill McConkey, David Fenton, Al Hearn, Danielle Moed, Carey Toane and Mariana Jardim.
The series was originally delivered in 2019 to participants of #TheBRIDGEHack, the sports data hackathon where Shujah met students who lacked the resources to launch their businesses.
She found that students who participated in entrepreneurship initiatives at U of T spanned 58 programs, and that students and alumni alike relied on library workshops to develop business and research skills.
Alongside McConkey and Fenton, Shujah brought in Al Hearn, educational developer for experiential learning at the Centre for Teaching and Learning, to guide the reflection pieces and structure. Danielle Moed, student development coordinator in the Arts and Science Co-op Office, was key to polishing content into digital lessons. Carey Toane, tri-campus entrepreneurship librarian, and Mariana Jardim, liaison librarian for management, entrepreneurship and co-op, helped develop the research-focused modules.
Faculty and librarians will use the series to teach business concepts, while community organizations can lean on it to support entrepreneurial initiatives. Other incubators, such as the award-winning African Impact Initiative, can use the modules to help launch start-ups, as can universities looking to build their own entrepreneurial programs.
“Clearly, many individuals in our learning community who lack a business background are looking for help starting a business,” Shujah explains. “It became apparent that open modules can fill this gap and support building an even more robust and equitable community of entrepreneurs.”
- with files from Ali Rajabali