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Entrepreneurial teaching is needed more than ever during the COVID-19 crisis

  • Janice Byrne
  • |
  • Apr 29, 2020
Entrepreneurial teaching is needed more than ever during the COVID-19 crisis

Left to right, clockwise: Scott McNichol, Kelsey Ramsden, MBA '04, Nicole Haney, and Umar ElBably, HBA ’19. All shared details of their experiences with students in Janice Byrne’s New Venture Creation course.

Janice Byrne is an Assistant Professor in Entrepreneurship. In the article below, she writes about teaching her first HBA course online amid the COVID-19 crisis and how connecting the students with entrepreneurs through Zoom chats was a win-win for all.

Having switched continent, culture, and educational system to join Ivey last year, adapting to change has become my new normal. The April intersession was to be my first time teaching an entire HBA course. My entrepreneurship colleagues had crafted a solid course called New Venture Creation and I was looking forward to trying it out for size. Enter COVID-19 and a shift to virtual classrooms; I would need to adapt some more. I had to learn how to teach via Zoom. And I had to do it fast.   

Content-wise, I was torn between not wanting to reinvent the wheel and acknowledging that not all cases or in-class activities would transfer well online. Delivery-wise, I was worried. How would I build rapport? Do eye contact and smiles still work online? What about ‘reading the room’? Can we still gauge student expressions and body language? No more in-class roaming and theatrical gimmicks. Would I lose my in-class mojo? A new approach was needed. If entrepreneurship implies an acceptance of uncertainty and high levels of resourcefulness, here was my chance to be an entrepreneurial, entrepreneurship professor. I strove to strike a balance between tried and tested Ivey Entrepreneurship cases and methods while also brainstorming ways to make the online experience engaging and real for students. To do so, I used every entrepreneurship trick in the book.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know

Over the course of two weeks, we welcomed three home-grown entrepreneurs into the virtual classroom: Umar ElBably, HBA ’19, co-founder of Faculty World Inc.; Nicole Haney, Founder and CEO of Boho Bars; and Kelsey Ramsden, MBA '04, founder of SparkPlay, Belvedere Place Development, and Tallus Ridge Development. They all had different insights to offer.

On day three of class, we got ElBably out of bed to talk to us from his Los Angeles-based apartment. He recounted his investment pitch experiences as well as his integration into the BOLT accelerator.

Haney shared her story of opportunity identification, exploitation, and market exit with the students on day seven. Students worked on re-creating a Business Model Canvas for Boho bars and got real-time feedback from Haney on their ideas.

Ramsden pushed students to consider their conception of success and shared her reflections on her own entrepreneurial journey. Prior to class, students watched pre-recorded videos that she had prepared just for them, and, once in class, we had a vibrant debate about what entrepreneurial success can be. Student engagement was impressive, as the Zoom classroom provided the perfect opportunity to chat and exchange. It facilitated a level of intimacy that we don’t always achieve in a live class. One student emailed me after class to say, "Rarely do we have such authentic and genuine conversations in the classroom setting." I thought this was a powerful tribute.


On day nine, the story of a local business reeling from the effects of COVID-19 provided fodder for a great in-class exercise. The story tells of husband-and-wife team Natasha and Scott McNichol who started their small painting business, Firefly Painting, in January 2019. Scott does the painting while Natasha looks after the paperwork and accounting. They named it Firefly Painting because the inspiration for starting their business coincided with the birth of their first child. On the night she was born, their backyard was filled with fireflies. Firefly steadily grew its client base through word of mouth from family and friends. The new year started off well with the birth of their second child along with numerous expressions of interest for summer time paint jobs. The future looked bright. As bright as a firefly. Then came March 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Natasha McNichol recounts:

“Spring and summer are our busiest seasons and we are missing out on crucial bookings, especially since so many people are now doing it themselves, finding themselves stuck at home,” she said.Redecorating is not considered an essential service, only if painting needs to be done in order for someone to have housing (new build with someone moving in) or for a new essential service (hospital). Putting a new coat of paint on a house is not allowed. We are on Facebook and Instagram … but I must admit, I don’t really know what I am doing there.”

HBA students offer advice to help a business pivot amid shutdown  

When I learned of their story – they are just one of the many whose livelihoods have been thrown into question since the pandemic – I was determined to connect them with Ivey HBA students to share some of the harsh realities of new venture creation. I set my New Venture Creation HBA students to work with a simple question: Can you provide Firefly Painting with some practical solutions and advice to help the company move forward? I was impressed with the practical and innovative responses. Student suggestions varied from mobilizing existing resources (vehicles, storage space, spray materials, and equipment) in the fight against COVID-19, to producing online painting tutorials and interactive video calls to help home-bound residents learn how to paint. The exercise provided students with a window into the existence of everyday entrepreneurs and their responses yielded groundbreaking ideas to help the copreneurs advance.

A combination of tried and tested Ivey Entrepreneurship case studies along with these “live” real-time cases made for a varied and rich learning program. But it was a steep learning curve. Getting my course Zoom-able in COVID-19 times made for some sleepless nights (and some generous screen time exceptions for my boys). Thankfully, the incredible support from Ivey colleagues made it all so much easier. I got helpful hints from colleagues who had also just made the online shift, and invaluable advice from our online teaching veterans. I benefited from exchanges with fellow online-intersession rookies as well as generous support from IT and the incredible Ivey Academy staff.  Finally, the flurry of good well wishes and “only three days to go!” text messages from the Ivey sisterhood confirmed that, while I may have travelled far in this past year, I have found a welcome home.