I joined the Walton College of Business Executive MBA program because of the prestigious reputations of the graduates who come from the program.
I knew early on that I was interested in the entrepreneurship program, and after several conversations with current and former students, I was completely sold. Many former students had tried to scare me away from the program by talking about how difficult it was and how much of time commitment would be involved. Some even tried to convince me that the New Venture Development class was the “toughest” class in the entire program. Little did they know, I was becoming more and more excited to experience the challenge for myself.
Most entrepreneurs, including myself, aren’t afraid of hard work.
Dr. Carol Reeves and Sarah Goforth have created a world-class program. At the beginning of every class, Dr. Reeves asks the class, “Where is the pain?” This reminds us that no matter how passionate we are about an idea, if it does not solve someone’s pain, it will not make money. The course took us through steps from identifying the “pain,” to picking the right cofounders, validating a problem, identifying funding opportunities, and creating exit strategies. Each had its own challenges. Starting a business looked easy until I understood the amount of work required to validate that you have a problem in which someone is willing to pay for a solution.
Not only did Dr. Reeves bring a wealth of knowledge to the class, she also has access to experienced and knowledgeable business mentors. The New Venture Development program goes far beyond the classroom and includes mentor weekends and other consulting and pitch rehearsal opportunities, in which seasoned mentors come to Fayetteville from all over to review our business plans and critique our pitch presentations.
The mentor weekends were the most challenging and rewarding part of the class. The mentors provided relevant feedback based on their hands on experience. They asked challenging and thought-provoking questions. I remember the first mentor weekend like it was yesterday. I was sitting in a conference room with my team, and we were confident that we could handle anything that the mentors threw at us. That lasted about three seconds. I had not even left the first slide, and the mentors had already provided valuable feedback. We came into the room confident, but left the room realizing we had a long way to go before we were ready for real competition. These events, like the class, were hard. Far harder, in fact, than any competitions my team was accepted into. And that’s the point.
My team had the pleasure of attending four business plan competitions in both the U.S and Canada. The purpose of the competitions is for graduate students to present their ideas to potential investors for funding. The team that wins must clearly define the problem, have a solution, and have enough research and customer validation to make the idea viable. We had practiced our pitch deck so many times that we could repeat it with our eyes closed. Not only was the presentation important, but the Q&A after the presentation was even more important. We had become subject-matter-experts in our business and any of us could field most questions by the end.
The team worked tirelessly after each presentation to incorporate any feedback given to make sure we were prepared for the next, sometimes only having a couple of hours between. In late March, our team was scheduled to compete in the Arkansas Governor’s Cup.
We had practiced all year long for our biggest competition of the year. Dr. Reeves has a great record of winning there, and we certainly didn’t want to let her down. The team practiced several times the week before and the week of the competition, and we all arrived there the night before to ensure we would be ready for a final practice round the morning of.
We have a normal routine that we do as a team before any competition. We meet for breakfast, do a few practice rounds and then try to de-stress before we compete. Our hotel was a five minutes walk from where we needed to present, so we left with plenty of time to get there. We arrived early and set up our equipment in the room. The judges were already there, so we greeted them, and I started some friendly conversation to break the ice.
Soon after, we started our pitch and the team hit every talking point like a champ. A true home-run. The judges were highly engaged, and I could see them taking notes. After the presentation they had thoughtful questions that we were well prepared to answer. We wouldn’t know for two weeks that we had won, but the important thing was knowing we had given it our best. So, to incoming New Venture Development students at the U of A or any students in the state who are considering the entrepreneurial path: be prepared for hard work.
Be prepared to receive hard questions. Be prepared to face the competition – because in the real world, as in the collegiate competition circuit – these challenges only make you better, if you rise to the occasion.
Justin Simpson is Director of Identity Access Management (IAM), Engineering and Operations for Walmart. He is a graduate of the University of Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in management information systems. He is currently pursuing an Executive Master of Business Administration from the University of Arkansas.