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Fail forward: UNL program focues on entrepreneurshipFail forward: UNL program focues on entrepreneurship

Unique university program encourages students to fail, then get up and try again. Part two of a two-part series; read part one here.

Wes Ishmael

January 7, 2016

7 Min Read
Fail forward: UNL program focues on entrepreneurship
<p>Keeping small-town main streets viable and bustling takes grit, determination and entrepreneurial passion. Those are just some of the characteristics that the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program teaches.</p>

“If you’re going to do something interesting, you’re going to get your hands dirty. It will make you sweat and will probably make you bleed, and it will make you want to cry even if you don’t,” says Tom Field, director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program (EAEP) at the University of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

That’s why this unique program values grit, one of its six cultural pillars. The others are: aspire, passion, courage, partner and build.

“Traditionally, universities are designed to develop future resources for the academic community, and there’s nothing wrong with that, or to develop more globally aware and trained individuals to work for organizations,” Field explains.

“With all respect to education, this program exists because there is a segment of students who are not well served by education through the traditional approach … I think we are attracting a certain style of student. They are doers — they just can’t wait to start,” he says.

When EAEP staff talk to prospective students, they ask the students if they simply want to secure a job after they graduate, or if they’re on a quest to accomplish something more.

Even though students come to the program with an entrepreneurial spirit and independent bent, Field says, “One challenge we have is to encourage them to be bolder, to not just be in business, but to be the best in the world in that particular business.”

He points out that being bolder doesn’t mean being reckless, but having the courage and confidence to aim for the highest point the students can imagine.

Learn from failure


Consider Steven Fish, who was involved from an early age on the family farm, ranching and feedlot operation in south-central Nebraska.

His parents instilled the value of financial independence into their kids at an early age. They gave each child six cow-calf pairs when they were young. Come graduation, the kids could do whatever they wanted with what had become of that initial investment.

When he was still in high school, Fish had his own seed distributorship, grew his cowherd, owned pens of cattle in the feedlot. One reason he decided to attend college at Nebraska was the EAEP.

“I’ve failed in business,” Fish says. “I never would have dreamed that I could learn so much by it — relationships with people, risk management, and being able to see that others have [failed] as well.”

The failure in question revolved around renting 700 acres of corn ground at the same time he was taking 18 hours of courses, and then receiving only 70% of the average annual rainfall and having corn prices lose about a third of their value.

With a wry smile, he explains, “Being a naive 20-year-old, you know the only ones who drowned on the Titanic were farmers; they kept waiting for it to go back up.”

Through the Engler program, Fish explains, “I think I learned how to fail forward. Everyone you talk to — everyone — has had a failure, sometimes major. What separates individuals is how they deal with the circumstances and yet continue to have the motivation to achieve their goals.”

Along with pursuing cow-calf and farming opportunities at home, Fish is working on a business plan that puts a new spin on heifer development aimed at creating more economic efficiency for individual operations through partnerships.

Nurturing business owners

“The Engler program creates a culture around the students that encourages and challenges them at the same time,” Field explains. “We’re trying to provide the environment for them to grow while leaving proprietorship in their hands.”

Take a look at the EAEP Advisory board, which is chaired by program founder Paul Engler. There’s Tom Osborne, former University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) football coach and congressman. There’s Edward Pallesen, managing director for Goldman Sachs & Co. There’s Kenneth Green of Agra Holdings LP. And there are six others of similar ilk.

In making his decision to enroll in the program, Fish explains, “I thought it would be ultra-competitive and thinking outside of the box, but mostly I wanted to come for connections with students in the program who will be successful — but also connections with business leaders who are beyond willing to help care for the next generation of entrepreneurs.”

“All successful entrepreneurships are based on relationships and partnerships,” Field emphasizes.

In addition to day-to-day network-building, the EAEP also includes guest lecturers and a series of lectureships from folks like John Eastin of Kamterter Products and Joe Stone, business leader of Cargill Feed & Nutrition.

EAEP also gives students a firsthand look at a variety of businesses at different stages of maturity. Past tour stops include Nebraska-based Cabela’s, Clean Coal Solutions in Denver and Irish Cream Sheep Dairy at Bushnell, Neb.

One of the most successful visits last year was to a bed-and-breakfast. It was a trip some of the students dreaded, because they felt it had little to do with real businesses like the ones they were considering. They were blown away by what they learned about the power of customer service, no matter the business.

Whether students enroll in EAEP for one year or four, they’re encouraged to develop an executable business plan by the time they graduate.


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“Some people’s experience in the program is creating a business plan,” Fish explains. “For others, it’s changing the mindset from producing a commodity to selling a brand in production operations.”

With that in mind, the EAEP also sponsors entrepreneurial events open to all UNL students, and in some cases, non-students.

For instance, in conjunction with a program called 3-Day Startup, the EAEP held its inaugural 3DS Engler Startup Experience in September.

Participating students came with an idea they developed and presented through mock investor pitches. Industry panelists were on hand to provide feedback and judge the viability of the businesses. By the end of the weekend, nine businesses were created.

Haley Bledsoe is an EAEP student majoring in animal science at UNL. During the event, she and her teammates developed a business called Running Buddy — a mobile app that pairs dog owners with people who could walk their dogs. Running Buddy was one of two businesses selected at the end of the weekend to join a startup pre-accelerator development program offered by the Lincoln-based company NMotion.

“The 3DS Engler Startup Experience really helped me become more confident with pitching ideas,” says Bledsoe. “It was a very inspiring weekend because we had the opportunity to network with people who have a similar passion for entrepreneurship.”

The EAEP experience is tailored to each student.

As Andrew Zimbroff, UNL assistant professor and Extension specialist, explained of the recent startup event, “The idea is not to do the work for the students; we just create an environment that enables them to explore their ideas.”

“This is a program that has set me up for future success more than I would have ever dreamed,” Fish says. “Yes, you develop business plans, but in reality I don’t think we’ll be able to comprehend the value this program gives us. Not only the friendships and connections we have made, but the lessons we get to learn from others.”

For more details about the EAEP, visit engler.unl.edu.

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