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Michaela Bearden and Katie Gilstrap have flown to Saudi Arabia every year since 2018 to deliver the Henry Ford Entrepreneurship Academy (HFEA) in Riyadh. This year, COVID forced the program to go virtual.

“Creating an engaging experience was top of mind and we took a deep breath as we kicked off the session,” says Bearden, Senior Director of the VCU Center for Corporate Education. “We were looking at 44 blank squares on-screen.”

Princess Nourah University (PNU), the largest women’s college in the world, has been HFEA’s host and partner in Riyadh. “Having delivered the workshop in person on their campus for several years, we understood its modest culture,” explains Gilstrap, assistant professor of marketing. “Considering how to offer a meaningful, substantive experience with an understanding of and appreciation for the culture was our creative force.”

“To our delight, the participants engaged early and with conviction,” says Bearden. In addition to frequent contributions in the virtual chat, one woman spoke up and began to share her human story, a key component of the workshop.  Gilstrap adds, “It was filled with truly transformational moments,” including one where a graduate student found the courage to speak up for the first time in a group setting. “You could hear the anxiousness in her voice, but she felt safe in that environment. In the end, it was the most interactive online experience I had ever had. It was powerful because it was developed to meet the participants where they were and to look at the opportunities that a virtual modality could offer.”

And growth, indeed, is the goal of the Academy, a VCU/Ford Fund partnership designed to equip entrepreneurs with the skills they need to move their idea forward. Positioned as a kickoff event before the core graduate school curriculum, the course develops entrepreneurial capacity through activities and practice. It provides a safe place to share ideas and explore challenges entrepreneurs face. Students reflect on their human story, shift their mindset, and begin to practice a set of activities to help them on their entrepreneurial journey.

This year, as an additional way of increasing engagement during the workshop, the students listened to a series of podcasts where U.S.-based entrepreneurs speak to each stage of the workshop’s key learning outcomes. “We hope that by hearing others’ experiences, the HFEA participants gain confidence and clarity on how they can bring their own ideas to life,” says Bearden.

Throughout the workshop, students refine their idea and develop their pitch. At the end of the program, the students share their ideas for a chance to win 1-1 consulting. The winner is awarded eight consulting hours with Dean Browell, a who co-founded a firm to study how generations interact online.

With the shift to a virtual modality, the two program administrators decided to practice the concepts they teach by actively leaning into a growth mindset and building around the constraints.

“We wanted to demonstrate that limitations could actually be freeing,” says Bearden. “And while we teach this concept, this year it was a lived experience, because Katie and I had to find a creative and meaningful way to deliver this program.”

Judging from the participant comments in chat, their creativity paid off.

“My previous insecurities have made me stronger.”

“Nothing is better than a person who first struggles, then turns their struggle into a successful business.”

“It got me thinking of all the things I can accomplish and how to conquer my fears.”

“You may not think your entire life can change in a week, but it can. I am proof of it. I am not the same person I was before, and I am going to speak up now. Life is too short not to.”

The HFEA team, composed of Bearden, Gilstrap, and Jay Markiewicz, the original author of the Entrepreneur’s Journey workshop, hope to deliver workshops in person in 2021. For now, they are confident in their ability to continue teaching transformative workshops in an online setting.


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