April 25, 2018  

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USM Center Builds Momentum as Leader in Entrepreneurship Education

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Greenville High student Alex Jackson discusses his startup enterprise during one of the Southern Entrepreneurship Program events.

An entrepreneurial spirit has served as a cornerstone of economic development in the State of Mississippi for more than 100 years. At The University of Southern Mississippi, entrepreneurship is recognized and heralded as a catalyst for the state’s continued success.

At the heart of its commitment to excel as a leader in entrepreneurship training, is the University’s Center for Economic and Entrepreneur Education (CEEE). The center serves as an educational resource for K-12 educators and students in South Mississippi. Established by the College of Business in 2005, CEEE bridges educational gaps in economic, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy through relevant, hands-on learning.

Through its flagship Southern Entrepreneurship Program (SEP), the center has worked directly with more than 4,000 high school students. Launched in 2007, the SEP is a statewide youth initiative designed to advance innovation and entrepreneurship education efforts in Mississippi.

SEP programming consists of an annual series of regional, virtual, and statewide student opportunities/competitions, each specifically designed to introduce high school students to essential topics like opportunity recognitionmarket validation, and essential/soft skills. The SEP was developed as a critical response to the lack of existing entrepreneurship training within Mississippi’s K-12 educational system.

Director James Wilcox notes that while most entrepreneurial startups/programs tend to capsize well before reaching their 10-year anniversary, the CEEE’s momentum represents a testament to its value.

“We’ve worked tirelessly to identify very real needs within our state, and just like a private startup, we painstakingly balance the costs and available resources to strategically address those needs in a sustainable way,” said Wilcox, who served as a graduate assistant and program coordinator before taking over as director in 2011.

The Southern Entrepreneurship Program offers tangible proof of the CEEE’s credibility. What began as a fledging idea with just four high schools participating, has blossomed into a thriving and popular enterprise involving more than 50 high schools spread across the state.

“The truth is, we’ve never needed to recruit new schools,” he said. “Growth has been completely organic. The real effort comes in delivering on that expectation of new, innovative experiences each semester. This academic year has seen some of the most exciting student events that we’ve ever attempted. A growing support network at both the local and state levels has made this possible.”

Wilcox takes particular pride in watching the development of high school students who participate in the SEP initiative. He stresses that the center has become a beacon of awareness and a bridge builder for economic opportunities among Mississippi’s youth.

Roderick Moore, personal finance instructor at Hattiesburg High School, is a big fan of the center and particularly the SEP. Moore has chaperoned dozens of Hattiesburg High students through SEP-sponsored competitions over the past several years.

“The SEP has been an outstanding and robust real-world learning experience for my students,” he said. “They have acquired real entrepreneurship and personal finance skills that are practical and have expanded classroom and, even personal, endeavors.”

Dr. Faye Gilbert, Dean of the USM College of Business, says the CEEE’s focus is quite simple – to make it easier to teach and to learn basic principles of entrepreneurship and economics. She considers the center to be an invaluable resource, not only for the University, but for the State of Mississippi.

“We believe and have seen that students who enter the statewide competition in entrepreneurship, for example, can then earn the funds they need to attend college,” said Gilbert. “We believe and have seen teachers transform their schools as their students reach for the next round of competitions. I am grateful that we are a part of this focus on infusing our educational systems with accurate information for entrepreneurship and economic education.”

Among the CEEE’s new initiatives for 2018 is the piloting of a seed fund for University student startups. In addition to providing increased support to University-based startups, the effort’s goal is to begin identifying key entrepreneurship and innovation stakeholders within the campus community.

As the CEEE looks to the future, Wilcox points out that an important objective of the center is to change the perception many young people have about the state’s economic potential. He says that in conversations with high schools students oftentimes he hears the phrase: “Mississippi is for old people” or “It’s a retirement state.” But with each passing year students participating in the SEP demonstrate a different and brighter reality.

“Their stories bring new awareness to a promising future of untapped opportunities that exist within our state,” said Wilcox. “Through each unexpected story, we’ve been able to apply direct pressure on the wounded perception of Mississippi, both beyond our borders and among our own students.”

To learn more about the Center for Economic and Entrepreneur Education, call 601.266.6055 or visit: https://www.usm.edu/business/economic-entrepreneurship-education