The Wood Enterprise Institute: Teaching Students How to Lead Sustainable Enterprises

Wood Products January 12, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

By Dr. Earl Kline. Professor. Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, Virginia Tech. Email at kline@vt.edu 

Background

Wood, a naturally renewable, sustainable raw material, was one of the first materials used in ancient civilizations for many needs including shelter, furnishings, tools, fuel, and artistic expression.  Today, society continues to rely on wood as a basic material for many necessities --- including building components for buildings, cabinetry, and furniture as well as new and innovative wood uses for composites, chemicals, and energy.  There are 15.7 million acres of healthy and productive forest land in the Commonwealth of Virginia and, therefore, sustainable forestry and forest products business practices are essential for maintaining clean water, clean air, and providing basic materials for society’s needs.  Reliance on these forest lands for natural, renewable resources to meet these basic needs creates a healthy symbiosis that increases the value of the resource while providing the best raw materials from both performance and environmentally sustainable viewpoints.

In recent years, global competition and a slowing economy have put a strain on the Commonwealth’s forest-based enterprises.  This strain threatens the value of our forest resources as well as the economy that depends on them.  Many of Virginia’s existing forest products businesses tend to be family owned, relatively small in size, and often lack the expertise to innovate and compete fast enough in today’s changing global economy.  However, these small businesses have the opportunity to develop critical new business models that are successful and sustainable.  There are also large multi-national forest products companies in the Commonwealth that are well positioned for setting the standard for adopting more sustainable business practices and technologies.  Trained leaders are needed to help these businesses recognize and take advantage of emerging opportunities and help Virginia and the U.S. continue to be leaders in forest resource-based business, thereby sustaining the long-term balance between our natural resources, our economic aspirations, and our human need.

Wood Enterprise Institute at Virginia Tech

To help develop the leaders of the future, Virginia Tech’s Department of Sustainable Biomaterials offers an experiential learning experience through the Wood Enterprise Institute (WEI).  WEI is a student-run, faculty-supported organization at Virginia Tech.  WEI was created in 2007 and since then has grown in recognition as a premier learning venue for creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and business leadership.  WEI focuses on developing exceptional human capacity for a sustainable “value-added” economy through a student learning experience that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship as a complement to a strong technical foundation built at Virginia Tech.  Learning goals are accomplished through a rigorous 2 semester team-based experience to align many business functions such as market research, finance, design, engineering, manufacturing, packaging, selling, distribution, and logistics.  Since WEI functions as a student owned and operated business, the team strives to set high performance targets and to execute the many business functions in a way to create value with minimal wasted effort.  Exceptional learning experience comes as the team is challenged to focus on customer service and continually improving business functions to minimize costs and environmental risks associated with a myriad of resource, capacity, and market uncertainties.  Perhaps the most important learning aspect the team understands is that human capacity is a business’ greatest asset and, therefore, a business can only achieve its maximum potential through a profound respect for people. 

Each academic year, a team of 10-15 students are charged to design, manufacture, and sell a product that can sustain their business.  That is, the students must find customers who will buy their products to yield a return on their investment costs and they must consistently deliver a value in a way that is cost effective, is safe, and minimizes environmental burdens.  The team begins with an intensive 2-week “boot camp” style training to develop foundational skills while reconditioning them to focus on problem solving in an “uncertain” business environment instead of a well-defined academic environment.  After training, team then develops their marketing, operations, and financial business plan with a deadline to be production ready by the end of the first semester.  During this first semester, it is most important that the group functions as a team that is accustomed to solving problems with no “right” answers.

During the second semester, the team then focuses on executing their business plan.  The students keep score to help gauge how well they are meeting set targets while executing their business plan. Simultaneously managing sales, resource procurement, production, delivery, and customer service functions are a challenge.  To prioritize and balance a myriad of business functions, the team learns how to focus on activities that add value to the business and minimize activities that get in the way.  Even with an excellent business plan, many problems arise where students must work together to find effective solutions.  How the team responds and works together to address the many challenges that get in the way is where the true entrepreneurial learning occurs! 

In conclusion, it takes one level of creativity to develop a brilliant plan; however, it takes a markedly different level of creativity to execute a plan brilliantly.    Innovation in a constantly changing environment depends on developing and combining both of these two levels of creativity.  In essence, the WEI business acts as a laboratory that provides many learning opportunities whereby students can practice a rigorous problem-solving method to find and apply knowledge in ways to adapt and improve the business.  This learning experience offered by the Wood Enterprise Institute at Virginia Tech is a major step towards developing the leaders of the future.

For more information about the Wood Enterprise Institute, please visit http://cnre.vt.edu/students/wei/

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USDA / NIFA

This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.