Aug. 20, 2015 3:39 pm

Watson University students got a crash course in the social entrepreneur life in its first session

“The work that we do is down and dirty,” says ED Rashaun Williams

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Watson University is not your average social entrepreneurship class experience.

The first session in Philadelphia, a two-and-a-half week course, was an experiment to see if the city is ready to handle training millennials to be the social entrepreneurs of the future. Made up of students from across the country (four from Philly, two from Arizona, and one each from Colorado, D.C., New Jersey, and Connecticut), the pilot program was a crash course in the social entrepreneur lifestyle.

“For a lot of them it felt like an educational vacation,” said Rashaun Williams, executive director of Watson University Philadelphia. “It wasn’t what they expected, but it was good that it was a little different.”

The ten students in the pilot stayed together in a house in West Philadelphia, sharing the space for the duration of the program. Williams leased the place and cleaned it up for their arrival before working with the students to finish the job, making their temporary house a home.

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“It kind of felt like camp,” Williams said. “Girls stayed together in a room and guys stayed together in a room. It created this atmosphere and this energy where you build this family kind of friendship with folks. In the morning I would come and we’d all make breakfast together–oatmeal, pancakes, french toast, eggs, omelets, and smoothies…then at night sometimes we’d make dinner together or we’d go out.”

This approach was Williams’s way of showing what true entrepreneurship looks like on a day-to-day basis. Instead of a conference or a bootcamp-like experience where the teachers came to the students, the students were exposed to what real-life entrepreneurship looks like.

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“The students expected more of this dormitory, cabin-y kind of space where you would go to a classroom and do rigorous work all day, and [that] I would just talk to them about SWOT analysis stuff and just business, business, business,” Williams said. “[Watson University] is more like what to do to make your livelihood and your actual life and your passion your business.”

Each day, the students would travel to where a master course teacher was giving a presentation, usually at his or her office. Leaders such as Christian Kunkel at Jarvus and Michael O’Brien at Village of Arts and Humanities hosted sessions to share with students how entrepreneurship works in their sector, and how that integrates with their lives.

The students each had a personalized curriculum, meeting with professional social entrepreneurs, educators and pioneers in their field who could impart insight, wisdom, and experiential capital to the students as it related to the students and their projects.

The intense programming was a jam-packed version of the usual Watson University experience, which generally last about 4 months. The goal of Watson University, created in 2013, is to give its students as much practical and hands-on experience as possible. In addition to the session in Philadelphia, sessions also just wrapped up in Colorado and the Philippines.

“Normally entrepreneurship programs are like [conferences]–I personally can’t stand that, because that’s not real life,” Williams said. “Especially with millennials–millennials don’t care about upholding the same traditions and status quo. They don’t care about that, especially when they’re trying to solve worldly issues, they don’t have time for suits and putting on a show.”

With one-on-one sessions to supplement the master courses, the students were exposed to tough conversations about how to start or scale their ventures, rooted in figuring out what the students need to grow in their professions.

And the experiences provided in the course weren’t over when the class ended, which was at the end of July.

“I chat with some students on a weekly basis, some every other day,” said Williams. “A lot of students had a lot of excitement going back home, so we talk pretty often about where they are in their ventures. A lot of students developed relationships beyond just with me, with their master course leaders. They actually want to do business with some of the master course teachers and mentors.”

With the first session in the books, Williams said that he is diving headfirst into planning what’s next: bringing in students from all over the world to Philadelphia in order to bring in a wide variety of perspectives and create lasting relationships that will strengthen future students in their ventures.

Images via Watson University



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