International students learn about entrepreneurship in U.S.

Each summer for the past several years, Dr. Sherry Robinson, associate professor of business administration, has hosted students from Norway and other countries for a two-week intensive course at Penn State Hazleton.

The students learn firsthand about entrepreneurship in America, including meeting with leaders in the business community, while broadening their cultural experiences in a country that some of them had never visited before.

The majority of the students attend the Kongsberg, Honefoss, Drammen and Vestfold campuses of Hogskolen i Buskerud (HBV) in Norway, with students from Portugal, Sweden and Great Britain attending this year as well. Robinson, a 2008-09 Fulbright scholar, completed her doctoral dissertation and the majority of her published research on entrepreneurship.

Penn State Hazleton Chancellor Gary Lawler said the program provides a unique experience for students involved. "It's certainly beneficial for the international students to learn more about American entrepreneurship in this setting, and having them here is an asset to our campus and students as well. Dr. Robinson has done an excellent job of coordinating the program and bringing in business experts to consult with the students," he said.

Director of Academic Affairs Elizabeth Wright noted the benefit of faculty-student discussions, saying, "In addition to business experts, Dr. Robinson invites Penn State Hazleton faculty from various disciplines to speak with the students. The support from faculty and business leaders has made this a truly invaluable program."

This year's guests included Dr. Joseph Ranalli, assistant professor of engineering, who spoke with the students about how alternative energy helps to create solutions to some of the most pressing environmental concerns in the world today. Dr. Pamela Black, associate professor of administration of justice, spoke about laws in different states; Kevin Salaway, director of development and alumni relations, addressed the students about marketing theory, sharing insights from his experience in marketing at Nabisco; Susan Bartal, assistant director of university relations, talked to the class about relationships with media; and Desiree Hertzog, waste consultant at WCRS, spoke about waste management, which complemented the course's theme of "People, Planet, Profit."

Robinson said, "Several students took the initiative to meet with the presenters to learn more about topics of particular interest to them."

This year's 28 students who were part of the program organized into six teams that developed several project ideas, including one from what they felt was a bad idea, one a bad idea they could turn into a good idea and one "Frankenstein" that blended two different products.

One "Frankenstein" idea was the roller castor, developed by Josefine Strøm and her team. The product, which they billed as "less mess and more fun," puts a flour shaker inside a rolling pin, enabling its user to simply shake flour or another ingredient out while using the rolling pin. Some of the other teams' Frankenstein projects combined an alarm clock with a pillow and a suitcase with a built-in scale.

"I have learned that everything can be turned into a project. Bad ideas can be turned into good, trash can be turned into treasure and two ideas can be combined," Strøm said.

Strøm said fellow student Mithuna Vijayaratnam suggested the program to her and she thought it would be beneficial for her education. "I always had a dream about opening something for myself," she added.

Both students liked the Penn State Hazleton campus, with Strøm noting, "It's pretty and people are very friendly."

Vijayaratnam also commented on the inclusiveness of Penn State Hazleton students, saying, "People were very welcoming and nice, and there were many opportunities at the campus we don't have at home, like a tennis court and a basketball court. I think that's great. While we were playing volleyball, some American students walked up and asked to join our game. We really liked that."

While at Penn State Hazleton, the group of students worked with Jack St. Pierre, who launched a successful business in the Hazleton area and who retired last year as the executive director of CAN BE, Greater Hazleton's business incubator program.

"The international students have many forward-thinking ideas that can be used in the future. I'm always impressed with the creativity of their projects," said St. Pierre, who lends his expertise in entrepreneurship while screening the ideas presented by the teams of students. He has been part of the program since its beginning six years ago.

St. Pierre was one of the business advisers who participated in the Lions' Den, a panel formatted after the TV show Shark Tank, on which entrepreneurs make business pitches to investors. St. Pierre, Business Program Coordinator Paul McDermott and Associate Director of Student Services and Engagement Marquis Bennett served as the "lions." The teams presented their ideas to the lions and received feedback that enabled them to improve their projects.

The ventures were then displayed to members of the Hazleton Rotary Club, who viewed the projects, some of which included prototypes, during a trade show at the end of the course.

Two of the projects displayed to Rotary members included plastic containers used to store leftovers, integrating existing technology to measure bacteria, and an app that quizzes students on their knowledge of a variety of subjects, with a portion of the proceeds from the app's download to go toward improving education in third-world countries.

Rotary President Tim Genetti spoke highly of the "wonderful" students and their projects, saying, "As Rotarians, we're all in business, so it's particularly interesting to see young people thinking of how to help the environment and grow a business in the future."

HBV student Kristian Zogla, who is Latvian but moved to Norway several years ago, comes from a long line of entrepreneurs, including his father, grandfather and father-in-law. At age 18, he started his own business, an employment agency that contracted labor.

"I really like the freedom it gives you of doing something on your own. I'm a hard worker and would rather do something on my own," he said.

Zogla said the class challenged him to develop his creativity and collaborate while working with teammates. He was also among the students who made connections with Penn State faculty and staff to learn more about their careers and advice.  

Wright said, "The projects are intended to spark student thinking regarding the contribution that entrepreneurial activity makes to the greater good. They also stimulate discussion on the power of using collaboration to design new solutions. Through this class, Dr. Robinson has designed an experience that shows students the productivity that can occur when one works in teams with members from diverse backgrounds."

Robinson noted that many students from previous years have kept in contact with American students they studied with, including some who have visited in person.

"One of the goals of the program is for lasting partnerships that will serve the students well throughout college and beyond, and we're happy to see those relationships continue," she said.