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COBE students play 'Dragons' in international class exercise

Students in Associate Professor Mike Chatham's international accounting class played the role of venture capitalists in a class exercise on April 23 in which they were pitched start-up business ideas by aspiring student entrepreneurs from France's Blaise Pascal University.

Modeled after "Dragon’s Den," a popular BBC show in which entrepreneurs pitch business plans to actual venture capitalists, the exercise placed RU students as dragons being courted by the entrepreneurs at the 14,000-student public university in south-central France.

Reynolds-Nguyen-dragons-den

John Reynolds and Huyen Trang Nguyen discuss a business venture being offered to another team from within their class.

Speaking in English, seven groups of students from Blaise Pascal pitched ideas for a variety of products and services, including a new style of clothes hanger, a picnic box designed for warm and cold foods, a website for creating personalized handbags, an exercise stepper, a company specializing in organizing surprise trips, an event-planning company and a website to help users select their clothes for a day or particular event.

Rules for the exercise stated pitches had to be completed within 15-minutes.

RU students utilized the large TV screens and high-tech equipment in COBE Building's telepresence room to see and communicate with the Blaise Pascal students. The RU dragons viewed slide presentations and videos on a 90" monitor and could see the students at Blaise Pascal on an 85" monitor. Cameras and microphones in the telepresence room beamed video and sound from Radford to France.

The schools have been participating in the exercise for the past five years. Chatham, along with Geoff Heels, who teaches the graduate logistics course at Blaise Pascal, established the practice. In the fall, RU students will pitch business ideas and Heels' students will play the role of venture capitalists, or dragons.

To prepare for the exercise, Chatham instructed his students to pretend they were using their own money during the mock negotiations. He also encouraged them to watch episodes of "Dragon's Den," the American spin-off show "Shark Tank" and 'The Profit" on CNBC.

Before the class exercise, RU students had time to preview information and videos prepared by the Blaise Pascal students about their products. Heidi Flowers, a junior accounting major from Vinton, was part of the RU group looking to invest in the picnic box. She said she watched the product video repeatedly over several days to prepare for the pitch.

"I used my knowledge from Marketing 340 to prepare for the decision process," Flowers said. "I also did additional research on other products for a similar use to compare pricing and options."

Flowers said the most challenging aspect of the exercise was "making a decision on the spot and not having the option to retract."

Will Appelquist, a senior accounting and finance major from Christiansburg, was part of the team of dragons who was pitched the idea for a website helping users make clothing choices. His most formidable challenge was "justifying my offer," he said.

"'Click and Dress,' the product I reviewed, didn't give out their cash flow projections until the day they presented," Appelquist explained. "I felt they were a little too optimistic with their numbers. I would have liked to have had the numbers in advance so I could have done my own analysis and given them better feedback about how much money to expect in the first year of operations."

Appelquist also said he was impressed by the Blaise Pascal students' ability to speak in English.

Teaching students to communicate with individuals from various backgrounds is a top priority for Chatham when he runs the exercise.

"The biggest thing the students learn is communication," Chatham said. "They learn how difficult it can be, especially in two-way interactive video, to understand somebody whose native tongue isn't English."

Going into the exercise, Chatham said his students also needed to understand differences in business terminology and the differences in currency. The Blaise Pascal students spoke mostly in terms of Euros.

"The essence of business is being able to sit down and communicate with somebody, get their trust, their understanding," Chatham explained. "In this class, it all has to happen in 15 minutes."

Apr 30, 2014