Ja-Naé Duane works with students in Stein Hall in 2018.
When Ja-Naé Duane introduces entrepreneurship to students at the College of the Holy Cross, she doesn’t start by talking about business ideas, product development or marketing strategy. Rather, she tells students: “Pick a problem.”
As head of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program within the Ciocca Center for Business, Ethics, and Society at Holy Cross, Duane encourages students to work on solutions only after they’ve wrestled with complex, global problems. For example: “Why don’t we have fresh water in all parts of the world? And what are the potential causes for the water wars that have started to exist?”
Duane, an entrepreneur herself, explains: “A true ethical leader needs to look at all sides and as many perspectives as possible in order to build something that is not only sustainable, but is also sustainably good for humanity.”
The Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program is one of many initiatives within the Ciocca Center, which combines the power of a liberal arts education with experiential learning to shape the next generation of ethical leaders and critical thinkers — and has offerings open to students from all class years and majors.
One way students are getting that hands-on entrepreneurial experience is by running their own incubator, HC Launch. Using a holistic approach, the incubator focuses on bringing students’ business ideas to life.
Tom Cremins ’21, an economics major with an education minor, is a co-managing director of HC Launch, which he first got involved with during his sophomore year. “I was able to join a business with a team of four students looking to create a mobile app that aimed to make mental health resources more accessible to college students,” shares Cremins, who says participating in the program has shown him firsthand the importance of being a self-starter.
Duane, who advises the group, encourages students to consider how they can be servant leaders, a term for those who lead by putting others first. She sees the approach as one way to integrate the broader Jesuit mission of the College.
“We teach skills like resilience, grit, creativity and adaptability,” explains HC Launch Co-Managing Director Mary Anne Wiley ’22 of the incubator’s objectives. An economics major on the pre-dental track, Wiley notes this skill set is useful no matter what career paths students follow: “It’s not just specific to business. You can take this to healthcare, to the sports world — literally anything.”
Wiley says that, despite following a virtual format due to the pandemic, HC Launch has seen a great turnout for the fall semester, including the most female members in its history. “It’s just really exciting to be part of a time where I have the opportunity to guide female students to turn their creative business ideas into ventures,” she shares.
Throughout the fall, students from HC Launch and Duane’s Entrepreneurship course developed their own business concepts — many of which responded to challenges students have observed during the pandemic.
“We have a team focused on making scientific articles easier to read and mitigating some of the misinformation that seems to occur when these studies are used within the news,” Duane says. Another team, concerned with the environmental impact of single-use face masks, is developing and testing a biodegradable mask. And one group is working on an app to help athletics teams stay connected to teammates and coaches while training remotely.
Dozens of alumni — with expertise in such areas as startup financials and building a sustainable product — met with the students virtually to give them feedback on their business ideas.
“It’s been such a great experience to hear from all the alums,” shares psychology major John Bowen ’22, who has been running his own businesses since starting a snow removal service at age 12. He says he values getting real-world feedback from experts working across so many different sectors: “It’s cool to hear from all sides of the spectrum.”
Although students do sometimes turn their business ideas into ventures, Duane says what she most cares about is the innovative, problem-solving mindset students acquire through the process: “It’s about taking these skills to figure out how we can create a world that we want to live in.”
And for the last two years, students have been doing just that through the Innovation Challenge — a competition, co-sponsored by HC Launch and other College departments and programs, where teams race to solve an issue on campus.
“In October, we had our first virtual Innovation Challenge,” Wiley says. Six teams had 24 hours to propose a solution to a problem related to sustainability. This year’s winning team presented a plan for implementing composting stations around campus. “It was great,” reports Wiley, who says the event gave students an important opportunity to apply skills, propose changes and improve their own community.
Wiley says that combining a liberal arts education with experiential learning opportunities has helped her think outside the box: “I think I have a stronger sense of critical thinking, and it pushes me to be creative in different ways when I’m expressing an argument in a paper.”
When Cremins graduates, he says his biggest takeaways from the program will be to focus on problems before solutions and to lead with empathy: “In order to be a leader who’s going to create positive change in the world — whether it be through some sort of business or just through any profession or passion that you have — you have to be able to have empathy for others and be able to understand what others go through and the problems that they face.”
Duane views innovative thinking as a powerful tool for fueling positive societal change. “It is through entrepreneurship that we’re really going to be able to solve for some of the world’s biggest problems,” she says. “And we need to make sure as many people as possible have these skills.”
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