The business plan seemed sound, the product appealing. The students in Professor Earl Kline's entrepreneurial wood-design and innovation course were confident they could manufacture and sell enough units to make a profit.
Then came the unexpected challenges that inevitably arise when launching a new business. The students' table saw kept tearing out more wood from their product than intended. Online sales could not be conducted as planned. The students had to adjust their strategies with an eye toward keeping their operation in the black.
All the while during their two-semester course, they had to work as a team to delegate, to identify roles and responsibilities, and to follow through on tasks—practices that are essential in industry, but are not always taught in classrooms.
"It's not that the product is complex or even that the business is complex, but you have to get things done through people," Kline, a faculty member in the College of Natural Resources and Environment's Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, said while describing his motivation for starting the course in 2007. "It's about communication. How do you motivate? How do you keep people accountable? How do you give them the tools to do their job successfully? That's what I hope they pick up in this class. And these tend to be the things I hear them say they learned at the end."
As part of the class, students run a business called the Wood Enterprise Institute, for which Kline is faculty advisor. In 2010-11, the institute produced coasters bearing the Virginia Tech logo. Sales were strong, so for 2011-12 the idea was to extend that product by adding salt and pepper shakers and a container to hold all the items, said Kyle Simmons, a senior who expects to complete his wood science and forest products degree in December 2012.
By the time he and his classmates gave their final presentation for class, they had spent numerous hours developing their product, securing approval from the university's licensing and trademark office, writing a business plan, and setting up their team structure. Thanks to support from donors, the students also were able to go on a group retreat, visit company sites, purchase new equipment as needed, and hear presentations from people who work in the wood-products industry.
Simmons, who plans to work in sales, was in charge of marketing the product he and his classmates had developed, and he said that the collaboration on such a detailed group project was eye-opening.
"We were all used to being in the same classes together but were not all used to being in the same business together," he said, adding that the class was "definitely one of the most valuable experiences I've had in my college career."
Brooks Whitehurst (chemical engineering '51) said he donated to the institute because it helps students learn to be creative problem-solvers.
"Traditionally, in school, you take a test at the end of your semester, with multiple-choice questions, and one of the answers is the correct one, but that's not the real world," said Whitehurst, who lives in New Bern, N.C., and is president of a company that conducts research and develops products and processes for its clients. "In the real world, you have to come up with the best solution possible given the circumstances that exist."
John Rocovich Jr. (general business '66) is trustee for the Nettleton Foundation Charitable Trust, which has supported Kline's class via the institute as well. Rocovich, an attorney based in Roanoke, Va., who serves on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, said the institute is an attractive program to fund because of the type of hands-on business experience it offers students.
"When the students have that real experience, it dramatically enhances their employability and job prospects, and it gives them a fast start [in the working world]," he said. "And when you have a program as fantastic as we have in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, you want to be on the cutting edge, and this program fits right into that."
Josh Hertzler, a rising senior who is majoring in wood science and forest products, said the program allows its students to have a well-rounded set of skills by the time they enter the workforce. "This is something that employers can look at and see that we've run a real business with real money," he said. "It shows that we're experienced, which is just a really good thing, and not everyone gets that opportunity in school."
"I actually have this on my résumé already," Hertzler added, "and it's definitely something that I'll try and bring up in job interviews."