At any given moment in professor Richard Bilodeau’s class, Creative Strategies for Entrepreneurs, students might be meeting with the founders of Maine-based businesses.
The next moment, they might be meditating, coloring or building with Legos.
As a class, it’s like a type of alchemy. Bilodeau takes the practical aspects of entrepreneurship, adds in some business modeling, the latest science around the importance of play, and then watches the creative sparks fly.
“We’ve known for years that when we control stress and optimize the chemical messengers in our brains, particularly dopamine and serotonin, our performance improves, whether we are playing a sport, an instrument or working,” says Bilodeau, who oversees the Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship (ICE) minor at the University of Southern Maine.
“But I think we are really just starting, as researchers and businesspeople, to connect the dots,” he said. “The science is advancing at an incredible pace.”
This is the trend that USM is tapping into with the ICE minor, now in its third year. With the Creative Strategies course and several other offerings that make up the program, professors Bilodeau, Gary Palin and John Voyer seek to expose USM students to the science behind creativity, tools they can use to train their brains, and fundamentals of entrepreneurship.
The minor complements any field of study at USM. It is designed primarily for students in majors outside the School of Business who are interested in starting a business or otherwise using creative strategies in their field of interest.
So far, the response has been positive. As of this past spring semester there were 24 students enrolled in the minor. They included majors in art, music, engineering, biology, chemistry, undeclared and more. Another 30 students were enrolled in the Art and Entrepreneurial Studies concentration, which has served as a partial model for the ICE minor, and about 100 students were studying general management with a track in entrepreneurship.
“We see this as a growth area,” Bilodeau said. “The ICE minor provides not only an opportunity to vet an idea to turn into a business, but to break out of the common misperception that creativity is the same as being artistic. Being good at art is an expression of creativity, but it is not the only one.”
Reducing stress, optimizing performance
The quest for the state of flow – where a person is fully engaged in an activity, with enjoyment and without stress – has become a holy grail of sorts for businesses around the world, from one-person startups to the largest corporations.
It’s why employees at Google, Amazon and NASA are encouraged to incorporate play and relaxation into their days, from beach volleyball and dodgeball to, yes, Legos. It’s all about reducing stress hormones and allowing workers to find their optimum mindset for creative thinking and critical decision-making. In a poll conducted by IBM in 2015, 60 percent of CEOs agreed that creativity is the most important skill to possess in a leadership role, beating out a long list of other traits such as integrity and global thinking.
For USM students who choose the ICE minor, the idea is that they will graduate with the skills they need to start their own business, or to succeed as an “intrepreneur,” which is someone who brings fresh perspectives and creative thinking to an existing company or organization.
“One thing I really appreciated about the program was that I learned how you can fit in within a ‘normal’ workplace, and your creativity can be a great asset,” said Melissa Bardsley, 22, who graduated summa cum laude in spring 2017 with a BA in studio art and the ICE minor.
Bardsley, a native of Oakland, Maine, wants to pursue a career in nonprofit arts management. She is volunteering this fall for the Maine Crafts Association, and working at a stained glass supply store.
“I would highly recommend ICE for those who want to set themselves apart in the workforce,” Bardsley said.
“It helped me figure out that employers want to have people who are willing to consider brand new ways to approach a problem, people who are willing to stray from the herd, but to do it with reason and smarts.”
Business school gets inspiration from artists
The idea for the minor originated with School of Business professors Nancy Artz and Fred Aiello, both of whom are now retired.
The professors had been hearing from USM students outside of the business program who wanted to take courses related to entrepreneurship. But they weren’t able to enroll in those classes because of the prerequisite structure, which required them to first take several foundational courses.
“If someone in music or engineering wanted to get more understanding of what entrepreneurs do and how innovation and creativity drive the process, they were mostly out of luck,” Bilodeau said. “Nancy, Fred and others wanted to change that.”
For inspiration on how to frame the ICE minor, they looked to the art department, which for many years had offered a concentration called art and entrepreneurial studies. The concentration combines art and art history courses with a studio focus, a cluster of business courses and an internship with creative professionals. The popular program has produced successful graduates including Becky McKinnell ’06, founder and president of iBec Creative.
The School of Business hired Bilodeau and Palin as full-time professors to launch the new ICE minor in 2015. Bilodeau, who taught in the adjunct faculty for many years prior to being tapped for the program, is an entrepreneur himself, having started up small businesses in Maine and in the Southeast.
Another goal of the program, Bilodeau said, is to get first-year students thinking about the spirit and tools of entrepreneurship. He teaches an entry year experience (EYE) course called The Innovative Entrepreneur. EYE courses are designed to expose students to broader themes they will encounter in education.
Kayla Caiazzo of North Yarmouth graduated magna cum laude in spring of 2017, with a bachelor of arts in English language and literature. She chose the ICE minor because she wanted to be a more well-rounded graduate, and because the offerings fit nicely with the courses in her major.
“A business minor would have been too intensive. I found the ICE minor and ended up with Professor Bilodeau as an advisor, and he was incredibly helpful,” Caiazzo said.
Caiazzo said she enjoyed the mix of practical learning with exercises in creativity. She also enjoyed the diversity of guest speakers in the ICE courses, and the opportunity to talk with students who had already started their own businesses. As of this summer, Caiazzo was looking for jobs in the editing and publishing field, and was also considering moving to England, where she had spent 18 months studying abroad.
“I would love to be able to own a little bookshop someday, or a cafe, and the ICE minor made me feel that would be possible,” she said.
Watch Bilodeau and two of his students discuss their experience in USM's School of Business on USM's monthly television show, "The USM Update" below.
By Trevor Maxwell for USM Connects