Business students see how industry pros adapt
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
When the COVID-19 pandemic turned most ground classes at Grand Canyon University into Zoom meetings, it couldn’t halt a major perk many students enjoy – guest appearances by industry leaders.
Those talks are a staple in the Colangelo College of Business, and before the spring semester ended, two were particularly notable: football executive Chris Presson speaking to sports business students and restaurateur Lauren Bailey spending time with a hospitality class.
These weren’t just casual, stop-by-for-a-few-minutes visits. Both had some extra time – another byproduct of the pandemic – and were willing to share an hour of storytelling and mentoring.
Judging from the questions the students asked, the messages hit home, which was pretty much where everyone was thanks to this socially distanced phase.
“All these guys are sitting at home trying to figure it out – I think it’s a great lesson for students,” said Dr. Mark Clifford, CCOB Assistant Dean and Director of Sports Business.
Presson, for example, was named President of the Edmonton Eskimos last August, but his job is trickier than ever with preparations for the Canadian Football League season on hold – like everything else in the sports world.
So he told stories. Boy, can he ever tell stories.
He talked about knowing an organization’s culture before approaching the employer. He stressed the importance of doing multiple internships. He emphasized being willing to do anything anyone tells you to do, even if it’s not in your area, because multitaskers are more valuable.
To underscore that last point, he shared a great anecdote about why it pays to volunteer for any task.
Presson said he was working for a minor league hockey team when, during a meeting, the group was asked whether any of them had experience working with immigration laws. Presson raised his hand.
Had he done any work in that area? Not at all. But he said he was willing to learn – and he was chosen for the role, which led to other promotions down the line.
Presson, who previously was President of the Arizona Rattlers indoor football team and the Phoenix Suns’ developmental team, the Northern Arizona Suns, conducted an interesting exercise with the class: He had students give him their “elevator speech” – their one-minute synopsis of what makes them a good job candidate. Then he gave tips to each student on how to make it unique.
“I don’t care who you are or where you come from, everybody has a story,” he said.
When Presson opened up the Zoom session to student input at various intervals, the questions came one after another. “You guys have asked stellar questions,” he said when it was over.
Clifford said that high level of engagement has been a constant ever since he arrived on campus and Presson asked him if he could speak with students.
“Obviously, it was an easy ‘yes,’” Clifford said. “He’s one of those guys who just sits and chats with the students.”
Bailey loves to do the same, but her role as CEO of the Upward Projects Restaurant Group keeps her hyper-busy – when a pandemic isn’t limiting eateries to takeout-only, that is.
But, like Presson, Bailey was a picture of positivity during her video chat with students.
“We’re in beast mode,” said Bailey, whose group operates five businesses on Central Avenue just north of Camelback Road in Phoenix – Postino, Federal Pizza, Joyride Taco House, The Windsor and Churn.
In fact, she believes entrepreneurs are “uniquely positioned to weather this type of storm” because they’re used to facing money issues and other challenges. Too often, she said, our stories are built around anxiety and a lack of information, which then is filled with negativity.
“The body goes where the mind goes,” she said.
CCOB Dean Dr. Randy Gibb was one of the virtual attendees and loved where Bailey’s message went.
“Lauren owned that Zoom call!” Gibb said. “She was super straightforward, didn’t back down from anything. I loved her positivity – I really think the students needed to hear that. These students are at home facing uncertainty during this pandemic, and Lauren is sharing her all-in stories about having confidence and belief in oneself during tough times.
“She stressed hard work and a great attitude. And now with her success, she still stresses being authentic and vulnerable while leading her team and showing how much she values them.”
Student responses to end-of-semester surveys were equally positive. Three samples:
“Our Sports marketing class has had amazing guest speakers all year, and that has continued via Zoom. Each one has given our class a unique and rare glimpse into the ‘real world’ of sports marketing.”
“The guest speakers have been nothing short of inspiring and educational. Each guest speaker was very encouraging in their presentation as they explained the winding road of their career path. Their unique experiences were not only interesting, they were eye-opening.”
“With their careers on pause, we were able to ask questions and gain valuable insight and information to help us while we’re stuck inside our homes. Thank you to Dr. Clifford for bringing these individuals to us in these circumstances. Students benefited immensely in knowledge and networking.”
Dr. Jennifer Elfenbein, Instructor of Hospitality Management, strived for an upbeat approach and focused on keeping students engaged.
“I’m trying to be hopeful,” she said. “What I am asking them to do is find information. Students are asked to share Bible passages that reflect the heart of hospitality and current news articles about the industry. A lot of our guest speakers have been providing amazing resources.”
Elfenbein also tailored discussion questions to what’s ahead after the pandemic, such as what marketing messages students would share about Arizona.
“I want to get that critical thinking going,” she said. “We don’t have answers at this point, but it’s important to think. The people in the hospitality industry have never dealt with anything like this before. I think it’s an awesome learning opportunity. I tell them, ‘Learn as much as you can from this.’”
Same idea for Clifford: Find the positives in this.
“I miss the students,” he said. “I think we all miss being in the classroom. With all that being said, because of technology it’s made it easier to see the students. It’s made it easier for me to give them guidance.”
And lots of good guest speakers who do the same thing.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].