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Award-winning NMSU prof turns students into entrepreneurs

Business students at New Mexico State University are not just learning about starting a business, they're doing it. Students in an entrepreneurship program have started their own company called Southwest Image, which sells regional products to customers around the world via Internet auctions.



Senior accounting major Alicia Tapia, left, and senior marketing major Jose Salcido pack up merchandise for Southwest Image, a company started by the students in NMSU's Entrepreneurship Laboratory. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

According to Samuel Gray, who heads NMSU's Center for Entrepreneurship and Small Business, training and experience are the keys to successful entrepreneurship. To give students those essential elements, Gray, an assistant professor of management, has started a new entrepreneurship concentration under the management and general business majors. It is designed to give students the skills they need to be successful straight out of school.

NMSU's business college hired Gray to create the concentration after a round of strategic planning illustrated the need for such a program. Most businesses in New Mexico -- more than 99 percent -- are small or family businesses, Gray said. "They are the business college's market."

So the college decided to restructure its curriculum to focus on entrepreneurship and small business topics. "We want to keep students here in New Mexico," Gray said. "We're giving students what they need to succeed in the environment here."

Gray moved to Las Cruces in 1997 from Virginia, where he has had experience with similar programs. In the fall he received the Patricia Christmore Faculty Teaching Award, an honor presented to junior faculty members for excellence in teaching, for his innovative methods of teaching entrepreneurship to students.

The most important factors in successfully starting your own business are training and experience, Gray emphasizes. Training in planning, finance and other business areas is something business schools can provide in classes, but experience is something students often do not have when they graduate.

"The best predictor of success for entrepreneurs is having experience, either having started a business before or having worked in another company in the same field," Gray said. "In this program, we try to give students hands-on experience while they're still in college."

The Entrepreneurship Laboratory, a new class this semester, is required of all program participants. In the class, students start a business venture with real money from a business college endowed fund. They will provide a product or service, working to make a profit. "Since we can't keep the money, we'll donate it to a charity like Habitat for Humanity," Gray said.

This semester the student founders of Southwest Image hope to attract global customers on auction sites such as eBay. They're developing a Web site at http://www.SouthwestImage.com.

"The class is a great learning experience," said Cedric Lee, a senior business computer systems major and Southwest Image's chief executive officer. "I really have respect for entrepreneurs who have made it past the planning stage."

"The real-life context of this class is much more challenging than the typical classroom setting," said Alicia Tapia, chief financial officer and senior accounting major.

This isn't like most college courses, Gray agreed. "From what we know this is the best way to teach it," he said. "We know the concept works." A similar class of Gray's in Virginia operated a firewood business and made about $3,500 in profit in a little more than a month.

The class is a reality check for some students, he said. They find out it's a lot of work, headache and risk owning a small business. "It's not easy, but it tends to be fun," Gray said. "You have more incentives to do a good job, and you can't blame your failure on someone else."

NMSU's entrepreneurship concentration requires three other courses. They are a seminar on such topics as how to write a business plan and how to get financing, a small business consulting class where participants team up to help local businesses solve problems and an independent project wherein the students develop ideas for new businesses, which they can begin after graduation if they choose. One year at the University of Houston, 18 of 24 students started their own businesses after graduating from a similar program, Gray said.

Many people think you need a certain personality to be an entrepreneur. Although even 10 years ago personality was considered important, experts no longer think it matters, Gray said.

Although many entrepreneurs have an internal locus of control, a high need for achievement and a high capacity for taking risks, "it doesn't mean anything," Gray said. "It doesn't hurt you if you don't have those characteristics."

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto.
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PHOTO: tapia_salcido.jpg
CUTLINE: Senior accounting major Alicia Tapia, left, and senior marketing major Jose Salcido pack up merchandise for Southwest Image, a company started by the students in NMSU's Entrepreneurship Laboratory. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Rachel Kendall
March 13, 2000