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On an entrepreneurial mission

As the first cohort of our Virtual Entrepreneurship Program gets set for spring kickoff, meet Dr. Jeff Cornwall, inaugural director of Belmont’s Center for Entrepreneurship and author of the Entrepreneurial Mind curriculum.

This year marks Jeff Cornwall’s sixteenth as Jack C. Massey Chair and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Belmont University and as author of the Entrepreneurial Mind, a website offering resources and training for entrepreneurs. This spring, Cornwall’s curriculum forms the foundation for the first LaunchTN cohort of the Virtual Entrepreneurship Program (VEP), an online, self-paced educational series.

“With VEP, we’re able to reach people who are geographically dispersed or perhaps not economically able to pursue a traditional education,” Cornwall said. “It’s really a mission to disseminate education to everyone who wants to become a business owner. I love working in that environment and reaching those students.”

From turquoise jewelry to healthcare

Cornwall is no stranger to the challenges of the startup world. “I grew up with entrepreneurship as a topic around the dinner table every night,” he said. “My dad bought and started small companies, from a box manufacturing plant to a candy business, and I was involved at a very young age.”

The entrepreneurial bug stayed with Cornwall. In his own college years, he ran a turquoise business, selling jewelry at festivals and fairs, and as a professor in the 1980s, he left a tenured faculty position to launch his own healthcare company, Atlantic Behavioral Systems.

“In that era, parents believed that the role of universities was to prepare students to get a job,” he said. “They didn’t want some half-crazy professor putting these entrepreneurial notions into their minds.” Business faculty shared that ethos, viewing their role as trainers of tomorrow’s corporate leaders.

A decade later, Cornwall sold the company and returned to academia, where perspectives on entrepreneurship had changed considerably. Programs were springing up in universities all over the US. After six years running an entrepreneurial center at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, MN, Cornwall connected with Belmont. “I love the process of starting something, growing something,” Cornwall said.

Belmont’s Center for Entrepreneurship is consistently recognized as one of the top programs in the country. This week, Entrepreneur Magazine and The Princeton Review ranked the university’s undergraduate entrepreneurship program as №. 20 in the nation.

Support along the startup journey with VEP101 + VEP102

The LaunchTN Virtual Entrepreneurship Program focuses on two audiences: in VEP101, true startup entrepreneurs with ideas, and in VEP102, established businesses seeking to grow. Dr. Cornwall shared three points for each cohort.

For aspiring entrepreneurs:

  1. Understand the importance of listening to the market. So many aspiring entrepreneurs come up with an idea and try to push it out into the marketplace. And that’s hard to do, because the market may not be ready or may not want it. What entrepreneurs do is fix pain in the market. The most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who find a problem and solve it. We help students slow down and make sure their idea is aligned with what the market needs. If it’s not, they have to pivot and change — and that’s part of the process.
  2. Financial literacy. It is critical to know and understand the numbers and be able to translate the business model into numbers. You have to be bilingual: your native language and accounting-ese. You have to speak the language of business.
  3. Understand the importance of seeking help. You need people to help you, advise you, coach you. It’s not something you do as this lone hero. It’s very much a team sport that requires you to bring a lot of people around you to make it happen.

For established businesses:

  1. Don’t assume that even though you’ve got it started you’ve got it right. Be open to adapt and change as you learn more and the market starts to react. Your business model needs to remain fluid. That’s why we’ve moved away from “business plan” as an instruction manual. The best tool is something that allows you to continually test and refine, even as you open the doors.
  2. The importance of selling. For whatever reason, a lot of people don’t want to sell or market their business. In reality, if you build it, they may or may not come. So it’s important to understand that you have to sell, hustle, and promote — and do it all with a sense of urgency. You’ve got only so much runway before you run out of money and time, and if you don’t get your business airborne you’re not gonna make it.
  3. The importance of starting to build a company. That is a lot harder than it sounds for most entrepreneurs because they haven’t done it before. It’s about people, systems, human resources, marketing — not just you but a system you bring other people into. It’s a reflection of you.

And one final message from Cornwall, for businesspeople at any stage: “You can never take your eye off the importance of culture. Culture will evolve in your company no matter whether you want it to or not, and you need to take control. Be very active in how you want things done, how you want your team to interact, and what you consider an honorable way to conduct business.”

“Build that into everything you do and everything your company does. It’s an anchor for your business.”