Open for Business
As the Nathan M. Bisk College of Business celebrates 40 years, we look at the college's beginnings, connections and beyond.
In 1980, gas cost $1.19.
Post-It notes, the Rubik’s Cube and Pac-Man hit the market.
Hair was big; shoulders were padded; the tech boom was just beginning.
And in Melbourne, Florida, a visionary physicist’s fledgling university was ready to broaden its academic offerings outside of the science and engineering realms.
Yes, 40 years ago, Florida Tech established the School of Management and Humanities, today, the Nathan M. Bisk College of Business.
Like the rest of the university, Florida Tech’s business program was established to meet the needs created in and around Cape Canaveral by the burgeoning space program.
While science and mathematics courses were important, the business college’s immediately impressive enrollment numbers were proof that professionals found development of their leadership, management and critical thinking skills equally valuable.
“I was there at the very beginning, and let me tell you, it was crazy,” says Roger Manley, who worked for 33 years in the business college—starting before it was a college—and served as its second dean from 1988 to 1990.
The College of Business was built on core values of innovation, ethics, leadership and diversity.
And unlike trendy toys and hairstyles in Vogue, 40 years later, these values have never changed.
Business at a “STEM” School
Jim Stoms, the first College of Business dean, was an engineer.
Manley, the second dean, was, too.
In fact, in the first several years, the business college’s faculty, like much of the university’s, consisted of almost entirely adjunct professors who also worked full time at the Cape and other local technology companies.
While some accreditation boards at the time thought this reflected negatively on the institution, Manley says, Florida Tech found that the structure provided students with the breadth of real-world experience to make the learning practical, relatable and applicable outside of the course’s primary subject matter.
“Adjunct professors who had good academic credentials and actual life experience brought so much more into the classroom than somebody who went straight into teaching without any real-world experience to draw from,” Manley says.
While full-time, academically qualified professors comprise the College of Business faculty today, the college continues its appreciation for professors with prior professional experience.
Abram Walton, business college professor and director of the Center for Innovation Management and Business Analytics, has worked in a variety of industries and roles, including as an EMT and, later, a manager at Walmart Inc., before entering academia.
“Our faculty don’t only come from the top of the academic sphere, but they have actual business experience,” Walton says. “So, the difference with Florida Tech faculty isn’t just their academic depth, but the breadth of their knowledge and their ability to apply it.”
And just as the college was started to introduce a complementary set of business skills to STEM-minded students, today, it also does the reverse, teaching business students basic principles of technology beneficial to careers in any field.
The Raspberry Pi project, for example, incorporates weeks of workshops teaching students to program the Raspberry Pi, a small, single-board computer developed to help teach computer science basics, before placing them in groups to use the new skills to develop unique products with potential for business development.
“Currently, only 4% of all invention proposals developed are marketable,” says College of Business Dean Ted Richardson. “The goal of the course is not only to develop an idea, but also to test its ability to generate revenue in the marketplace.”
Likewise, each year, international business students participate in X-Culture, which groups 5,000-plus students from more than 100 universities in 45 countries into teams tasked with developing business strategies for actual global companies, using the latest technology tools to coordinate and communicate with their international teammates.
Group projects like these, as well as those in interdisciplinary courses, foster an innovative, entrepreneurial-minded atmosphere in which students build product concepts, prototypes, business plans and, most important, lifelong connections with peers in and out of their industry.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find any other business school that has its business students learning how to build and use even the simplest of technology programs, let alone bringing their business ideas to life in their very first year,” Walton says. “But here, at Florida Tech, they have an opportunity to be part of some really awesome teams and engage with their engineering peers to actually bring their ideas to fruition.”
In the College of Business, the goal has always been greater than a degree.
“The university was built to support engineers who were helping NASA put people into space,” Richardson says. “To enable that to happen, you also need business people who understand the leadership, accounting and finance. So, the College of Business started off as an extension of that mission.”
Today, the college strives to make an impact on its local community outside of just NASA.
In addition to internship, cooperative education and practicum programs, the business college has established three prestigious centers that conduct important research and provide business insights to the local community while enhancing students’ understandings and experiences through hands-on work.
The Center for Entrepreneurship and New Business Development is an all-inclusive center primarily focused on entrepreneurial growth on campus and in the community. The center houses the Momentum Student Business Incubator, which provides entrepreneurial-minded students with a physical location for their business ventures, as well as the guidance of community mentors and faculty advisors.
The Center for Innovation Management and Business Analytics is, essentially, a research and consulting center. Walton leads the center, serving as editor of the Journal for Innovation Professionals and overseeing the center’s involvement with the International Standards Organization (ISO).
“In the center, we are basically writing the world standards for innovation management systems, collaboratively with other countries, on what innovation management should be for companies,” Walton says.
Walton and graduate students working at the center also host various training sessions for businesses in Brevard County and across the country and collaborate with College of Engineering and Science colleagues to merge the technological side of product development with their expertise in market analysis and innovation management.
“So, instead of creating a technology and then trying to find out if the market will use it, we try to find out what the market needs first and then try to match technology with those markets,” Richardson says.
The Center for Ethics and Leadership focuses on an oft-undervalued aspect of business that at Florida Tech is considered one of the most important.
“Aside from being the right thing to do, we’ve found that there is a financial component to being ethical,” Richardson says. “Most businesses with a good return on investment have a high degree of ethics with their customers and employees, and we’ve found that to be very important to companies’ growth.”
In addition to the research and discussion conducted at the center, the college also hosts a high school business ethics competition and a business industry ethics conference each year.
“Overall, I think the centers really help us progress in terms of providing great diversity, ethics and leadership across the business spectrum,” Richardson says.
Another integral part of the college and its community involvement is weVENTURE, its Small Business Administration-funded women’s business center that provides training, counseling, mentoring and technical assistance targeting local small businesses and entrepreneurs, both male and female.
“weVENTURE, in particular, has been very successful, recently receiving thousands of dollars in grant funding as a vital community resource for local small businesses struggling to deal with the ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis,” Richardson says.
Vision for the Future
As any College of Business graduate will tell you, no business can succeed in the long term without evolving, and the same goes for the college itself.
In its 40 years, it has grown from a school to a full-service college. As such, it offers bachelor’s degrees in all areas of business, as well as the Master of Business Administration (MBA)—with more than 8,000 graduates worldwide—an innovative master’s degree in accounting and financial forensics and, most recently, a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA).
Most important, it is constantly adding new courses and cutting-edge degree programs in response to ever-changing industry needs.
“Instead of being behind the market, in terms of what people are doing in business, we want to be ahead of the market and able to attack it,” Richardson says. “And that’s a goal that requires constant effort.”
One such effort is the creation and continuous development of the College of Business Advisory Board, consisting of about 40 senior community members, local business leaders and alumni, who work with faculty and staff to cultivate both a vision for the college and a plan to execute it.
“Throughout its 40 years, the college has grown with the times, making the modern changes that universities need to make, while managing to keep its character as that small, personal university,” says advisory board president Steve Thomas ’88. “And that’s what we aim to continue.”
The work is far from done. On the horizon, the college seeks further accreditation, increased enrollment, more degree programs, more mentorship opportunities and more recognition for the prestigious institution that, in just 40 years, it has become.
“When people leave, we want them to think about their experience here and how that experience has enhanced their critical thinking, their communication, their life,” Richardson says. “We hope that somehow, this university has touched them in a way that motivated them to try, to succeed and to help somebody else. That is—and always has been—our goal.”
This story was featured in the fall 2020 edition of Florida Tech Magazine. Read the full issue here.