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VIDEO: Atkinson Graduate School of Management Professor Robert Wiltbank and his students discuss the benefits of the Willamette Angel Fund program. (2:14)

Robert Wiltbank

Wiltbank leads his students in a class discussion of what they learned at recent angel investor meetings.

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Angel Fund teaches management students about entrepreneurship

Northwest entrepreneurs pitching their business plans to potential angel investors face tough questions about their expertise and strategy from a group of professional businesspeople — and a few Willamette University master of business administration students.

For the past two years, Willamette’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management has run an angel fund to provide start-up money for new businesses while allowing students to work alongside real-world investors.

This unique program — the only one of its kind in the nation and one of the top 10 entrepreneurship courses according to Inc. magazine — gives students insight into entrepreneurship from both sides of the table.

“Each of the 10 students sees about 60 or 70 presentations from entrepreneurs who are running a business and pitching it to investors,” says Robert Wiltbank, associate professor of strategic management. “They get to observe how business owners work to raise money for their project. On the other side, they’re also seeing how successful entrepreneurs — the angel investors — evaluate these opportunities.”

How it Works

Wiltbank created the Willamette Angel Fund two years ago through a gift from Willamette alumnus and trustee Jon Carder ’68 and subsequent gifts from other donors.

Angel investors are people who dedicate their own money to help a new venture get off the ground. The Willamette program allows MBA students to join angel investing groups in Oregon and Washington, where they listen to proposals from entrepreneurs.

The students bring the best ideas back to class to debate which ventures might be worth an investment. Companies that spark their interest go through a rigorous due diligence process, where the students research the entrepreneur’s idea and business claims. The companies they choose receive a $50,000 investment from the Willamette Angel Fund — which has invested in three businesses so far.

The students learn to evaluate many criteria, including the expertise of the entrepreneur, his or her ability to persuade people to commit to the project, and clear milestones for accomplishing goals.

“Initially, the self-directed learning style was a little challenging for me, since I’m usually most comfortable learning from a textbook,” Kelly Intile MBA’10 says. “But throughout the course I discovered that the experience of working directly with entrepreneurs, other investors, my classmates and Professor Wiltbank helped me learn more about angel investing than I ever could out of a book or traditional lecture class.”

Training for the Future

The program is perfect training for students who are interested in the angel investing field, like Andrew Beldin MBA’11.

“The Willamette program has given me a different perspective for how to approach venture capital and angel investing,” he says. “This has also been a great way for me to get people working in angel investing used to seeing my face, which will be important for me after graduation.”

But it’s not just future investors who learn from the course. Intile now works as an auditor at Deloitte & Touche LLP in Portland.

“As an auditor in public accounting, I am constantly trying to exercise my professional skepticism,” Intile says. “The due diligence process for angel investors involves many of the same skills — like asking questions and seeking outside verification.”

Ann Sinclair MBA’11 says she learned valuable tools to take to any company she works for — she knows how to ask questions about the company’s goals and milestones that are key for long-term success.

She also appreciates the class sessions for showing her how to be more self-driven.

“If you see a project or a company that you want to invest in, you have to speak up and convince the other students that it’s important,” she says. “Gaining that type of experience is particularly useful to me as a young professional who does not have much career experience yet.”