Open for (Virtual) Business
In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, DU’s Project X-ITE took its programming online
“We believe the only constant is change,” Project X-ITE’s belief statement begins. But nothing in the history of the business and entrepreneurship incubator has tested that statement like the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which caused the University of Denver to move nearly all its activities online for the rest of the spring quarter.
“We knew that our foundation of innovative, entrepreneurial thinking was being put to the test,” says Nina Sharma, interim executive director of Project X-ITE. “So, we did what we do best: We asked our community of students and mentors what they wanted and how they wanted to engage with us — and what happened was incredible.”
No sooner had DU called for a move to the virtual world than Project X-ITE began identifying ways to maintain — and even expand — its presence as a resource for students interested in building their own businesses, including:
- A COVID-19 resource website, featuring links to University events, the latest news, tips on online teaching and learning, ways to improve physical and mental well-being, things to make people smile and more
- More than 30 Xplore workshops, featuring community mentors, startup founders and experts across Colorado, speaking on topics from economic uncertainty to launching software to mental health support
- Learning innovation conversations for faculty and staff to incorporate lessons from the pandemic into future curricula
- A virtual Project X-ITE house for collaborative working, facilitated through Zoom, a Slack channel and the Startup Space app that connects students and mentors
“When this pandemic crisis hit, we knew our community would want to be part of something larger and would work in some way to identify challenges and create solutions during this time,” says Kanitha Heng Snow, assistant director of Project X-ITE. “Everyone has worked together to truly build community and support one another.”
The effort started during Finals Week of winter quarter, when Sharma and Snow met with their advisory board and hosted students for a special brainstorming workshop. They asked students what they thought about online learning and how it could best serve them.
The results were clear: Students wanted to make sure their courses remained engaging, while also building community and developing relevant skills. Project X-ITE responded.
“Right now, students are graduating into one of the worst job economies since 2008,” says Scott Romano, a senior who is also Project X-ITE’s student program coordinator. “So how can we help DU students differentiate themselves from other students? We targeted really hard skill areas as well as emotional intelligence to make sure our students are able to tell a really compelling story about their time at DU and the skills they’ve developed in tandem with the standard curriculum.”
Not everything has gone smoothly. The team has had to troubleshoot, recreate and revise. Unwelcome visitors “bombed” a Zoom workshop held last week. But “failing,” so to speak, and learning from it has always been a part of Project X-ITE’s approach.
“I am proudest of our entire community,” Sharma says. “Everyone collectively rolled up their sleeves, offered help and has embodied the idea of rolling with the punches.”
“And,” Snow adds, “we know that this community doesn’t end when the pandemic does. It will continue to thrive, and the silver lining for us is that we’re seeing our X-ITE community come together in a really unique way to support one another, to problem solve and to create change.”