Fashion design student Sakeenah Ashiru (left) is among those pursing a new degree in entrepreneurship at LSU in hopes of turning her passion for fashion into her own business some day. Photography by Brian Baiamonte
Editors note: This story has been corrected since original publication. An earlier version stated the bachelor’s degree requires 30 hours of courses. It requires 120 hours. The story also stated LSU has offered a minor in entrepreneurship for the past three years. It has for nine years. Business Report regrets the errors.
Nigeria native and LSU fashion design student Sakeenah Ashiru doesn’t intend to become a starving artist when she graduates next year. While she dreams of one day becoming a successful designer of women’s clothing, she knows her desire alone won’t pay the bills. A little business know-how is going to be necessary, too.
Shortly after transferring from Southeastern Louisiana University to LSU in 2014, she began looking for a way to augment her academic résumé to help prepare for the business side of the fashion industry, something she wasn’t getting from her existing curriculum.
“A minor in entrepreneurship sounded like the direction I was going for, because as an artist I want to be able to make my talent profitable,” Ashiru says. “I hoped to get the confidence to start my own business.”
Her timing could not have been better. In late February, the Louisiana Board of Regents approved a new bachelor of science degree in entrepreneurship through the LSU E.J. Ourso College of Business, recognizing the need for a dual degree program that would complement a second, primary degree with an entrepreneurial component. Three new faculty positions were created to support the new entrepreneurship degree program.
“If someone starts it early in their career at LSU and doesn’t waste a lot of time, they can get it done with a little more work above and beyond their current curriculum.” —Ed Watson, chairman, Stephenson Department of Entrepreneurship and Information Systems
While LSU has offered an entrepreneurship minor for the past nine years and an entrepreneurship concentration for management majors for 23 years, the entrepreneurship major includes a more intense curriculum overseen by the newly created Stephenson Department of Entrepreneurship and Information Systems. Following an exhaustive two-year process, the degree was borne out of the re-engineered Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department, and has a greater emphasis upon entrepreneurship and cutting edge methodology. A consultant from Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, which specializes in entrepreneurship education, helped develop the curriculum.
As part of her degree path, Ashiru is taking an innovative independent study course this spring that goes beyond the classroom.
“It’s a very interesting and intensive class where they provide mentorship opportunities and you visit different companies,” she says. “The way the class is structured, it’s very out of the box.”
As a result, Ashiru has been given the confidence to break out, at least locally, into the fashion world, debuting her “Midnight in China” clothing line during New Orleans Fashion Week on March 22.
College of Business Dean Richard White is excited about the new degree’s potential and expects students to combine it with existing majors. Currently, about 180 students are pursuing a minor in entrepreneurship at LSU. Students who choose to major in entrepreneurship will be required to earn a bachelor’s degree in another field at the same time. White says this requirement will integrate students’ passions—especially with music and arts—with the life skills needed to survive in the marketplace.
“I love the dual degree aspect of it because successful entrepreneurs must be passionate about what the business does. Pure entrepreneur degrees tend to be glorified general business degrees. This approach centers on the student’s talents and interests, but helps them take it to an entirely different level.” —Shaun Usher, chair, LSU Entrepreneurship Subcommittee
“We’re initially reaching out and working with the engineering, agriculture, art and design, and music and dramatic arts departments because of the interest of their deans,” he says.
Many of the entrepreneurship courses will be cross-listed with other colleges, paving the way for those colleges to jointly hire entrepreneurship professors.
“Say the music dean finds a professor who has done research into entrepreneurship in music and building new music businesses,” White says. “In such a situation, we could jointly pay the professor’s salary.”
The entrepreneurship degree is unique in scope and more ambitious than those at most other schools in the U.S., White says.
“We didn’t need to create another small business incubator,” he says. “What we needed was to give them a much deeper academic experience. This is really something that our students can use. It will make them more competitive and improve the state’s economy.”
The degree is heavily weighted toward guest speakers, internships and learning from the experiences of local entrepreneurs, both inside and outside the classroom. In fact, an Entrepreneurship Subcommittee (part of the Dean’s Advisory Council at the business college) has been instrumental throughout the process by providing guidance and financial support as well as offering internships.
Shaun Usher, president of Baton Rouge-based IT services firm Sparkhound, currently chairs the subcommittee and credits a single entrepreneurship class in LSU’s MBA program for changing the direction of his life. Shortly after graduating from LSU in 1998, Usher quit working in the IT department of a Baton Rouge area hospital and founded Sparkhound. The company now has offices in three states.
“If a single class can do that, just think what an entire degree can do,” Usher says. “I love the dual degree aspect of it because successful entrepreneurs must be passionate about what the business does. Pure entrepreneur degrees tend to be glorified general business degrees. This approach centers on the student’s talents and interests, but helps them take it to an entirely different level. I think local business owners want to be involved—especially when they hear where this department is going. They can help by speaking in class presentations, student mentorship or providing internships to students.”
White sees the degree as just one piece of a larger, long-term solution to a shifting job landscape. A recent study by Cambridge University found that 47% of the jobs that exist today will not exist in 20 years due to changes in job demand.
“My job as the dean is to determine how I can make students as competitive as possible in this brave new world,” White says. “We not only have to give them a traditional business degree. They need minors. They need specializations.”
One of the biggest initial tasks will be convincing students of the need for the dual degree, since many are focused upon getting out of school and finding a job rather than becoming fifth-year seniors.
“We hope that the value that they get out of it will be viewed as worth the time and money put into it,” White adds. “We’re going to see a lot of students who need direction, so that they will recognize that this is an opportunity for them to get something that is a little more tangible, a little more realistic. We want to marry their passion with the real world.”
Ed Watson, department chairman for the new Stephenson Department of Entrepreneurship and Information Systems, sees great potential in the new 120-hour degree.
“If someone starts it early in their career at LSU and doesn’t waste a lot of time, they can get it done with a little more work above and beyond their current curriculum,” he says.
STILL PAYING IT FORWARD
Emmet and Toni Stephenson have long been among LSU’s greatest supporters, having donated millions to their alma mater to establish the Stephenson Department of Entrepreneurship and Information Sciences, Stephenson Disaster Management Institute and Sean O’Keefe Leadership Award, among other initiatives.
The Bastrop natives and 1967 LSU graduates also served as the financial driving force behind the new bachelor of science degree in entrepreneurship, having pledged some $6 million over the next 10 years to help fund entrepreneurship initiatives.
In 2006, the couple’s monetary donations founded the LSU Stephenson Entrepreneurship Institute, which last year was rebranded as the Stephenson Department of Entrepreneurship and Information Sciences. Outside of the business college, they have also provided financial support for the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine and a new LSU Pet Hospital to be built in the coming years. Following Hurricane Katrina, they founded the Stephenson Disaster Management Institute to improve responses to major disasters anywhere in the world. In 2011, the institute partnered with the existing applied research organization at LSU to create the Stephenson National Center for Security Research and Training.
To celebrate their contributions, Louisiana Public Broadcasting has included the Stephensons as 2017 inductees of its Louisiana Legends awards program, which for 27 years has been recognizing the “best and brightest of Louisiana’s sons and daughters who have distinguished themselves in a variety of disciplines and have brought honor to the state.” They’ll be honored at a special gala to be held on Thursday, March 30.
“The Stephensons’ total donation is one of the largest ever to the university,” says LSU E.J. Ourso College of Business Dean Richard White.
Following their graduation from LSU, the Stephensons moved to Denver and spent the next five decades starting and growing a wide variety of businesses. Among them, they established money management firm Stephenson and Co. and private equity firm Stephenson Ventures. They also founded StarTek Inc., an outsourcing services firm that they took public in 1997 and today has more than 14,000 employees in three continents.
The couple was also a control group investor in Danaher Corporation, and they founded General Communications Inc., publisher of Law Enforcement Product News, Public Safety Product News, Denver Business Magazine and others. Emmet is chairman and Toni is president of Domain.com Inc., which owns and operates more than 1,000 internet websites.
In recognition of their business acumen, both have been inducted into the LSU College of Business Hall of Distinction. And while the Stephensons have been ardent supporters of LSU, their philanthropic endeavors stretch far beyond Baton Rouge. They also founded the Stephenson Family Personalized Medicine Center at the University of Southern California, giving $10 million to develop precision medicine using new genetics research. They’ve also founded the Healthcare Innovation Network at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and they provided $10 million to establish the Toni Stephenson Lymphoma Center at City of Hope Hospital in California. Over the past decade, the couple has also donated more than $50 million to new nonprofit organizations they’ve founded.