Creating cultural capital

Entrepreneurship expert presents creative business education ideas to UND and community leaders

Olaf Kuhlke 2017

Olaf Kuhlke, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota Duluth, co-authored a book on “Creating Cultural Capital: Fostering entrepreneurship in the creative and cultural industries.” He recently brought his expertise to a forum held at the UND Center for Innovation. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

In the UND Center for Innovation Idea Lab, on a screen often splashed with quarterly earnings or growth projections, a different kind of economic capital was displayed on Nov. 3.

It wasn’t dollars and cents. It was costumes, kicks and spins.

Tom DiLorenzo

UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo

The photo before the crowd was a traditional Inuit dancer in the 1960s, performing for an audience of tourists in Kotzebue, Alaska. This was how the community made money – and a lot of it.

“Alaska Airlines organized flights to Inuit communities specifically for tourists to visit these Inuit dances,” explained Olaf Kuhlke, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). “This became very popular and became a major income source for the local population. It was a way to preserve cultural tradition, to present it to a broader audience, and it was a way to also generate some income.”

This was just one example of cultural capital, a concept examining the economic impact of cultural practices. Kuhlke recently co-authored a book on the subject titled “Creating Cultural Capital: Fostering entrepreneurship in the creative and cultural industries.” This research in harnessing creative capital led him to establish a unique B.A. program in Cultural Entrepreneurship at UMD.

UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo met Kuhlke at a meeting in Minneapolis and invited him to UND for an afternoon of presentations to students, staff and faculty, as well as more intimate discussion groups with area business and economic development leaders.

“His work is in an area that I found absolutely fascinating. It touches on things that we’re doing at UND, but is also distinctly different,” DiLorenzo said.

Cultural & creative industries

Kuhlke’s vision of entrepreneurship training is unlike the typical business school model. Instead of injecting a business education with liberal arts classes, his Cultural Entrepreneurship program flips the process – a liberal arts degree heavy in languages, creative and cultural competencies, and international exchanges, with entrepreneurship courses to round out the experience.

At the end of the first semester of the program, students must step before a public audience and present a startup idea that offers a creative solution to a societal problem.

“Most of these ideas will fail in the marketplace, but that’s exactly the point,” Kuhlke said. “Learning to fail is a part of the experience of becoming an entrepreneur, no matter what background you’re coming from.”

The cultural and creative sector, which Kuhlke describes as the entrepreneurial industries strongly associated with creative activities like dance, arts, theater, design, etc., has an ever-expanding economic impact. Kuhkle said the creative sector comprises 6 percent of the world economy, and that number is rising.

“It’s a small, but growing part of our economy, and has tremendous growth potential here if we know how to properly explore it and prepare students to participate,” he said.

Community connection

Area leaders at Kuhlke’s presentation were intrigued by his emphasis on connecting his Cultural Entrepreneurship students with the Duluth community through creative projects and internships.

“One of the things the Grand Forks Region EDC (Economic Development Corporation) is currently delving into is how we get students to come out of college and stay here and work here in the Grand Forks area,” said Becca Cruger, strategic initiatives coordinator for the Grand Forks Region EDC. “Strengthening our entrepreneurial ecosystem is one way to address the workforce challenges that we’re currently seeing.”

“There’s a lot of potential in the creative economy, particularly focusing on the strengths of the University and highlighting the premier flagship institution in the region,” added Pete Haga, community relations officer for the Grand Forks Mayor’s Office. “Really focusing on the entrepreneurship side of the liberal arts – I think there’s a lot of capacity there.”

Student engagement is a pillar of the UND Center for Innovation’s renewed mission statement. Interim Director Barry Horwitz said the Center wants to figuratively tighten the bridge across 42nd Street, and a concentration on a liberal arts base could be one solution. As one of the country’s Top 25 Most Innovative Schools – as designated by U.S. News & World Report – UND is always seeking modern ways to create leaders in action.

“Kuhlke’s program says creative fields, entrepreneurship, and innovation are interrelated, and you don’t have to be in a business school to do that,” Horwitz said. “I think that starts to break down barriers, with fewer people saying, ‘That’s not for me.’ Because entrepreneurship is a mindset. You don’t have to start your own company. You can be creative and innovative in any company you join.”

Arctic collaboration

Kuhlke is also bringing his research north through a collaboration with UND Communication Department Chair Tim Pasch. The two have joined others in developing an incubator for digital entrepreneurship in the Arctic – or IdEA for short.

The team is currently collecting data and testing approaches to bring digital literacy, sustainable community economic development, and creative entrepreneurship to remote arctic communities.

“We’re trying to see how this thing we call creative and cultural entrepreneurship might work with people who are remote, separated from the rest of the word, have very little access to markets, but might have significant contributions to offer,” Kuhlke said.