Why Startups are Great for Project-Based Experiential Learning

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Written by Capsource

With most employers citing professional work experience as the key factor when making hiring decisions, it shouldn’t be surprising that business programs at colleges and universities are incorporating increasingly more experiential learning into their curriculums. Experiential learning is a great way to equip students with real professional work experience while they’re still enrolled in a traditional education program. That said, experiential learning requires collaboration with third party hosts, which can be quite challenging for schools.


As a university, how do you decide what companies will make the best strategic partners for experiential learning projects? What types of companies will provide students with the most valuable learning experience possible?


CapSource recently spoke with Pat J. Costa, a professor at Lehigh University who has worked extensively on coordinating experiential learning projects for his students in the Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE) Honors program for over a decade. Costa discussed why he prefers working with startups over big corporates and what he believes the students gain when working with leaders of earlier stage companies.


1) Startups embrace entrepreneurial thinking


When identifying host companies for experiential learning projects, Costa focuses on targeting organizations that are dealing with technical issues in a real business context and value entrepreneurial thinking. To him, entrepreneurial thinking means finding new, creative ways to solve problems, which can technically exist in any business environment. Startups in particular offer an ideal learning environment for students because they are trying to solve problems differently and they pride themselves on thinking outside the box. Startups maintain an ideal culture for students to make real contributions while gaining real practice analyzing problems and developing solutions.


When dealing with more traditional big corporates, students are often forced to wrestle with established ways of thinking. When dealing with larger companies, Costa recommends framing the project in an entrepreneurial way in order to best manage the expectations of the host company. For example, when working with the Lehigh Valley Hospital Network, a multi-billion-dollar organization, Costa said, “We make sure that the projects are entrepreneurial in nature so that the students have the flexibility to deliver value through creative problem-solving. So long as you are able to set the expectations from the get-go, larger enterprises often welcome the type of entrepreneurial creative thinking where students can excel.”


2) Resources are limited and stakes are higher


Quite frankly, early stage startups can use all the help they can get. Startups are typically strapped on resources and really value the effort and time that the students are able to contribute throughout the term. While corporations have a wealth of resources and experiences to draw from when solving challenges, every decision at a startup is crucial and must be weighed heavily because there is no precedent. In fact, in the startup environment, making the wrong decisions can ultimately lead to complete failure.


Costa said, “When students work with entrepreneurs at startup companies, they tend to be more focused on the project and more reliant on the outcomes. That ‘need’ is a form of desperation that leads to higher levels of engagement and better results for both the companies and the students.”


However, there is a critical caveat to working with startups: If they are too early stage, it might be too understaffed or under-resourced to effectively engage in a university collaboration.


In order to mitigate that risk, CapSource typically uses the following criteria to decide if a company is appropriate to take on a student team:


  • Has product-market fit been established?
  • Are they generating revenue?
  • Is the company funded?
  • Has a core team been established?
  • Have they formed different functions/departments?

Please note that the startups don’t need to meet all these criteria in order to be a good fit for a student project. We have found that the best outcomes most often come from startups that meet at least three of the above criteria. That said, Costa did mention that he has coordinated a few successful projects in the past with ultra-early stage startups. He said, “With companies that are pre-launch or pre-product, it’s important to frame the project as a discovery and research initiative. In some cases, we have our students building prototypes, but the course needs to include students who are willing and able to deliver those types of results.”


3) Less bureaucracy leads to quicker turnarounds


With less red tape, it’s easier for startups to approve and implement student-run consulting projects. In addition, startups are typically willing and able to provide students with access to more information in order to solve their business challenges. Although it’s rare to achieve complete transparency on any student-run project, with startups, students are more likely to gain access to the information they need in order to truly excel in their project. This is usually also due to the fact that startup founders are more responsive since they’re more reliant on the students for outcomes.


Conversely, corporations often have a difficult time gaining approval for university collaborations. Since there’s usually no preexisting approval channels for these types of engagements, larger organizations are often required to use custom legal paperwork and take other precautionary measures in order to participate. This results in longer lead times to receive proper approvals and gain access to information throughout both the scoping process and the formal engagement. Under these circumstances, any complications may result in last-minute dropouts, unhappy stakeholders, or unsuccessful engagements.

4) Students see a holistic view of the business with cross-functional projects


Focusing on startup companies allows the students to wrap their head around the whole business before trying to make a real impact. When working with earlier stage companies, it’s much easier to coordinate cross-functional projects because the business is naturally in such a formative stage with blurred lines between departments. When students are able to work across different company domains, they’re able to develop an understanding of the business as a whole and how the different departments come together to create value. When students have this vantage point, they’re able to gain real insight into the different functional areas, which ultimately helps them solidify what they’re most interested in pursuing further in the future.


Costa said, “When working with startups, students can understand how customer discovery informs product development, which ties to user testing and feedback. When they are able to connect those processes to sales projections, manufacturing requirements, and logistics planning, that’s tangible experience they can draw on well into their careers.”


By contrast, when partnering with students for experiential learning projects, corporations are typically required to focus on very specific departments and deliverables in order to gain approvals and manage it effectively. These niche projects cannot allow students to gain a broad understanding of the business model and the industry, which is a crucial part of the learning experience. An ideal experiential learning project should offer both breadth and depth, which is much easier to accomplish when working with smaller companies.


5) Startups offer a true, dynamic learning experience, not just a pipeline


Although a startup’s brand may not be as well-known as a big corporation’s, the learning experience is typically better due to the personalized attention and mentorship that they can offer the students. When working with a startup, students feel as though they have a vested interest in the company and that their project will have a positive impact on the future of the company.


Larger companies are often motivated to get involved with capstone projects for recruitment purposes, which can be a true misalignment of objectives. While it is intended that both students and companies receive value from each other, the learning experience should be the driving factor behind the partnership.


Costa says, “These are courses and should be designed as learning experiences where project managers acknowledge that they are being used to help teach real business principles. Any value that the companies get out of it is just gravy.”


The Importance of Outcomes

Regardless of whether you choose to work with a startup or a large enterprise for your experiential learning projects, it is paramount that the host company is willing to provide mentorship, offer a great hands-on learning opportunity, and keep all participants engaged and excited throughout the process. Partnerships that provide this level of engagement will significantly improve the participating students’ career opportunities because they can discuss their relevant professional development during interviews and they can draw from these experiences as they navigate through their career.


Costa has certainly seen these results with his students. He said, “We host a career fair for our honors students participating in our program every year and the first thing employers ask about is the capstone experience. These employers can tell a lot about a student by the way they explain their experience working in groups on dynamic, real-world challenges. It’s no surprise that the conversation is usually more about where the students are a good fit, not if they are good fit.”


Interested in partnering with a startup for your experiential learning project?


Contact CapSource to learn more about our project sourcing options for colleges and universities.

About Pat J. Costa and the Integrated Business & Engineering (IBE) Honors Program

​​Pat J. Costa, Professor of Practice in the Integrated Business & Engineering (IBE) Honors Program at Lehigh University, is the primary instructor for the IBE Freshman Workshop, the IBE Entrepreneur Independent Study Program, the IBE Senior Capstone Design Program, and the Introduction to Entrepreneurship course in the Entrepreneurship Minor. The main objective of his two-semester, six-credit capstone course is to use cross-disciplinary teams of IBE business and engineering majors to provide solutions to actual “real-world” problems raised by corporate sponsors. During the first semester, students work in teams of 5 to 6 students on the marketing, financial and economic planning, and technical and economic feasibility of new product concepts initiated by the corporate sponsors. During the second semester, the teams continue with the detailed design, fabrication and testing of working prototypes of their new product. In addition to the technical design of the products, detailed financial and marketing plans are required. The course is run similarly to the way a business would run their product development teams, and the course stresses a more participatory and hands-on approach to learning.


About IBE @ Lehigh
About the IBE Capstone Project
About Professor Pat Costa


Think Outside Yourself by Pat Costa

A Class-by-Class Guide to Teaching Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship


Think Outside Yourself is an eBook for teachers that want to learn more about teaching their students effectively. Through this book, Professor Pat Costa shares his 17+ years of teaching students about the entrepreneurial mindset.

He says, “If I could use one word to define entrepreneurship, it would be Change. My hope is that through these resources, you can change the way your students solve open-ended problems, and through the process, maybe it will change you.”

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