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Q&A: Steve Baker, director of the Center for Leadership and Entrepreneurial Innovation at Roanoke College

Q&A: Steve Baker, director of the Center for Leadership and Entrepreneurial Innovation at Roanoke College

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What is the role of the Center for Leadership and Entrepreneurial Innovation at Roanoke College?

The CLEI is the co-curriculum program for our students to take advantage of during the school year. The programming is designed to benefit all students on campus regardless of major and to provide them with some entrepreneurial/business skills. In order to do those things at CLEI we have essentially a handful of programs that we do that are ongoing all the time. One is our Main Street Maroons program, where students decide that they want to give service hours to local businesses and they don’t get any credit and they don’t get paid for this. It’s simply for the experience of it all. ...

We also have regular workshops and panels wherein we have a number of alumni or other community leaders meet with students across campus, and they share their experiences in entrepreneurship as well as their particular area of expertise, whether it’s marketing, human resources, finance, et cetera.

We also do something called the Pitch competition. It’s in its third year. We are incredibly fortunate to be sponsored by the city of Salem in this endeavor. We give out $5,000 a year in prize money to our students and winning student teams.

What do you think the center does that is most effective for students?

There’s the academic side, which is challenging. I think Roanoke College is well understood to be a good business school and so we provide a strong fundamental business education to our business majors. But we also have classes ... available to all students and they can come get this. In other words, if I’m fortunate enough to meet a young bio-chem major, like I did this year with a young lady ... she wants to be a doctor, but she also has a bunch of entrepreneurial ideas. I’m getting her to take some classes and do some stuff academically to give her a background in things like finance and entrepreneurship. ...

You have to also prepare people for the real-life challenges of being an owner in a business. ... There are several other professionals in our department with professional experience and industry experience, and we make it a point to drive that home. That’s what the workshops and panels do because the students hear firsthand accounts of the struggles of entrepreneurs — the success, the failures, the service.

What can Roanoke’s program do differently than one at a large, public school?

Our students seem to understand that we are a liberal arts college so we believe in a sort of cross-disciplinary approach. You take classes that are outside of your primary area of study. ... We have undergraduate research in a lot of departments and divisions and we have faculty who are very close to students and work on projects very closely with students, myself included. ... We are trying to do everything we can to give the students on Roanoke College’s campus, regardless of major, access and skills to survive in the business world without having to get a business degree. Because if we look at what’s going on in the world, the entrepreneurs and the innovators and inventors aren’t necessarily businesspeople. They are often engineers, computer scientists, artists.

Are there certain aspects of being an entrepreneur that students are interested in?

Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes. We’ve got a program called the Entrepreneurial Fellows program, where we basically invite certain freshmen that desire this ... before they come in [to college]. ... Every time I talk to them, I ask, “Why are you interested in entrepreneurship?” The answers vary from “My family does it” to “I want to be rich.” To be honest, a lot of people think they are going to be rich. A lot of people like the control aspect of it. …

What you have first in almost every person I’ve encountered is the entrepreneurial spirit — they know they want to do something before they know what they want to do. The one exception is the scientist who likes to create stuff. They kind of happen into their entrepreneurial endeavor. When those people meet the former group, that’s when you have something magical.

How did you get into this job?

I graduated from Roanoke College in 2001. I was a lawyer or law student since the day I walked out. While I’ve had tremendous experiences counseling people in my capacity as a lawyer and working with the legal community, when I started adjuncting I knew it was my passion to work with students. There are very few work environments that replicate the sort of environment you can get on a college campus. … There’s a high degree of optimism, there’s a more project-based nature to life. ... It’s just a tremendous experience to go to work every day and try to help these students learn more about themselves, learn more about the world and learn more about entrepreneurship.

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