The Wood Enterprise Institute

at Virginia Tech

 

Background:

 

The Commonwealth of Virginia’s forest products industry contributes over

$25.2 billion annually and 184,000 jobs to our economy; one of the largest

contributors to the Gross State Product (VDOF, 2006).   There are 16 million

acres of healthy and productive forest land in Virginia; therefore,

sustainable forestry and forest products business practices are essential for

maintaining clean water and, clean air, and providing basic materials for society’s

needs. Reliance on these forest lands for natural, renewable resources to meet

these basic needs creates a healthy symbiosis that increases the value of the

resource while providing the best raw materials from both performance and

environmentally sustainable viewpoints.

 

In recent years, global competition and a slowing economy has put a strain on the commonwealth’s forest-based enterprises.  This strain threatens the value of our forest resources as well as the economy that depends on them. Many of Virginia’s existing forest products businesses tend to be family owned, relatively small in size, and lack the resources to innovate and compete in a changing global economy.  However, these small businesses have the opportunity to develop critical new business models that are successful and sustainable.  There are also large multi-national forest products companies in the commonwealth that are now setting the standard for adopting more sustainable business practices and technologies.  Trained leaders are needed to help these businesses recognize and take advantage of emerging opportunities and help Virginia and the U.S. continue to be leaders in forest resource-based business, thereby sustaining the long-term balance between our natural resources, our economic aspirations, and our human needs.

 

Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship Experience-Based Learning

 

From engineering aspects focused on creating innovative, more “sustainable” components for residential housing and home furnishings to aesthetic design aspects directed toward creating furniture and art décor, there are existing models offering educational programming in the U.S. and in Europe to benchmark. These programs usually focus on specific areas in creativity, design, and innovation.  A noteworthy similarity among successful programs is that they employ experiential learning in their teaching technique;  that is, “learning by doing” through actual work experiences such as design projects, competitions, in-service training, or internships.

 

Designing effective learning experiences for business leadership and entrepreneurship requires working within an actual business to assess its constraints, propose improvements, lead people to implement improvements, and then keep score to determine how successful business functions are improved.  Such experiential learning can be provided through business simulations in the classroom or through internships within a business.  With internships, typically the business objectives supersede the student’s learning objectives and hence it is difficult to efficiently manage learning from a pedagogical viewpoint.  Computer business simulation games are often used in business schools to help with learning pedagogy, but such games limit experience gained in dealing with actual people to get things done in a business.  Role-playing simulation games are also used to develop team-building skills to accomplish tasks more effectively and experiencing how to lead various personalities toward various business objectives.  However, in such games a couple very important business elements are missing:  ownership and consequences.  For experiential learning to be most meaningful, students must truly believe that they own or are responsible for a business and that there are consequences (other than a poor grade) if they don’t perform at an acceptable level.

 

One experience-based learning method in entrepreneurship employed in Virginia Tech's Pamplin’s College of Business is a Business Analysis Seminar capstone course taught by Assistant Professor Alan Abrahams.  Abrahams created an actual not-for profit business in which students could apply the knowledge they learn in the classroom to running an actual business.  Students not only receive business knowledge but they are challenged to put it to use “in a practical way to grow their own business”.

 

The Vision of the Wood Enterprise Institute at Virginia Tech

 

Vision:  The Wood Enterprise Institute (WEI) at Virginia Tech is recognized and respected as a leading student learning environment for creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

 

The Wood Enterprise Institute is a student-run, faculty-supported organization at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia. WEI was created in 2007 and has since grown in recognition as a premier learning venue for creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and business leadership. WEI focuses on developing exceptional human capacity for value creating organizations through a student learning experience that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship as a complement to a strong technical foundation built at Virginia Tech. Learning and problem-solving goals are accomplished through a rigorous two semester team-based experience to align many business functions such as market research, finance, design, engineering, manufacturing, packaging, selling, distribution, and logistics. Since WEI functions as a student-owned and-operated business, the team strives to set high performance targets and to execute the many business functions in a way to create value with minimal wasted effort. Exceptional learning experience comes as the team is challenged to focus on customer service and to continually improve business functions to minimize costs and risks associated with myriad supply, capacity, and market uncertainties. Perhaps the most important learning aspect the team understands is that human capacity is the business’s greatest asset and, therefore, a business can only achieve its maximum potential through a profound respect for 

 

The Wood Enterprise Institute is currently operated in the Innovation & Design Laboratory and Classroom located at the Brooks Forest Products Center at Virginia Tech, which provides nearly 6,000 dquare feet of dedicated and flexible work space for product design, production, and supporting business operations.  An additional 4,000 square feet of shared space is located adjacent to the Innovation & Design Lab, houses the Brooks Center’s woodshop and machine shop areas.  WEI is organized as a 501(c)(3) student-owned business.  With advice from faculty and professional mentors, students design, make and sell products to customers while managing the business’s administrative functions and cash flow.  With this framework, students are able to take ownership of their learning experience by improving their business.