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Cleveland's Good for Business: Students learn real business skills in imaginary Texas town

Like all great ideas, Dr. Lynda Cleveland’s came to her while she was at the beauty shop waiting to get a perm.

It was 1998, and Cleveland was facing her first semester as a lecturer in The University of Texas at Austin’s business school. The prospect of teaching the management information systems course to which she had been assigned was exhilarating because she had wanted, ever since she could remember, to follow in her granddad’s footsteps and be a professor at the best university in the nation. The only possible little fly in the ointment was the fact that she would be teaching 1,125 students. In one semester.

Lynda Cleveland
Dr. Lynda Cleveland

Because she had been a motivational speaker who had presented to large crowds around the world alongside greats like Zig Ziglar and the late Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Cleveland was not daunted by the prospect of standing in front of a group that size. The quandary she puzzled over, as the perm solution wafted past her nose, was how to present the subject matter in a way that left each of the more than 1,100 students feeling as though he or she had been part of an intimate, meaningful learning experience.

Simply standing in front of a class, reading ream after ream of tired, over-processed lecture notes and giving tests was out of the question. That didn’t fit her vivacious, people-oriented personality, challenge her intellect or sit well with her conscience.

Pondering what a class of 500 or so would look like, she picked up a Texas Almanac that happened to be part of the beauty shop reading material and started thumbing through it, noting sizes of different towns. As she browsed entries in the almanac, she was struck by the fact that more than 400 Texas cities, at that time, did not even have 500 residents. And here she was with more than 1,000 students to teach and manage. That’s when the fateful leap of imagination occurred. What she had on her hands, with two classes of about 500 students each, was two cities!

There, at the beauty shop, the notion of Cleveland AT Texas was born, and Cleveland was named mayor of that fine city the first semester.

“As I’m sitting under the dryer with this cocktail of chemicals baking into my head, I’m thinking, I can build a class around a city,” says Cleveland, with a Texas twang. “We can break the class down into several small groups, and each group can represent a business in the town and, as we learn all of these business concepts, like statistics and information management, the students can actually apply those things to their work in our magical, imaginary city. At the end of the semester we can have a mock trade show, where they practice their communication skills and get a taste of what business is like in the real world.”

Since that epiphany six years ago, the Cleveland AT Texas business fair has gained a kind of mythic status on campus and in the Austin business community. About 5,000 people visit and participate in the fair at the end of each semester, including 300 students from area elementary schools, 400 businesses, faculty members and administrators from UT as well as other universities, parents and former students of the class who volunteer their time. Between 30-50 students walk away from the fair each year with an internship or summer job, and 30 or 40 of the students’ product ideas, over the years, have made the leap from class project to real.

Lynda Cleveland stands in front of a green Cleveland City-Limit sign
Mayor Cleveland presides over operations in the magical little town of Cleveland AT Texas.

The fair’s reach even has extended to East Texas. Because colorful anecdotes seem to float in Dr. Cleveland’s wake like a fine mist of hairspray, one is only mildly surprised to discover that the fair and class have spawned a sister-city relationship with the East Texas town of Cleveland. Or that Dr. Cleveland’s ancestors were founders of that town. Or that the mayor of the “real” Cleveland is honorary mayor of Cleveland AT Texas and Dr. Cleveland is honorary mayor of the real city.

Although the actual fair is a spectacle that, as many participants and visitors put it, “can’t possibly be described but has to be lived,” the operations of Cleveland AT Texas prior to the culmination of the semester are equally amazing.

At the beginning of each semester, the 500 or so students who take Dr. Cleveland’s Foundations of Information Systems and Statistics class randomly are assigned to groups of 5-7. Each of the 70 or so groups will be a business in the town of Cleveland AT Texas and will develop a novel product that can be hawked at the business fair. In keeping with the theme, groups must submit official paperwork to the Cleveland AT Texas Patent Office for each new product, and the patent office must determine if the product has a U.S. patent or is waiting to receive a patent.

Because the course is an introductory business class in the McCombs School’s Business Foundations Program (BFP), students from a variety of colleges and schools take it, including all classifications, from freshmen to seniors. The BFP gives non-business majors in good academic standing an opportunity to supplement their undergraduate curriculum with business fundamentals ranging from marketing to finance.

Although students may not immediately appreciate the virtues of having English majors as well as math and advertising types in each group, the benefits soon become obvious to Cleveland AT Texas residents.

Cleveland AT Texas business fair features 70 booths
The business fair features 70 booths and draws about 5,000 visitors and participants each year.

“I was a graphic designer before I came to UT, and I’ve done the visual design for our product” says Miles Ryan, a junior in the class this spring whose group has developed, as its product, a football with a gyroscope inside that makes it throw perfect spirals every time.

“We have a guy in the group who is studying to be a sports agent, and he’s absolutely a natural PR person. He talked to businesses and sponsors for us and contacted representatives with the Segway scooter company to see how their scooter is put together and how it works so that we could incorporate the same technology into our football. He even got hold of someone from the company that does all of the leather binding for NFL publications and had them bind our class document in the same leather and burn our business logo on the cover. He’s amazing.”

Because the groups represent businesses, members assume some of the same roles that one likely would find in a business. A math major may be the accountant or chief financial officer, while an engineering major may take over research and design.

“This class is so different from all of my other classes,” says Cassandra Cuellar, a freshman who hopes to go into corporate law. “You don’t sit and memorize facts and take tests. We really have to understand statistics, databases and informational technology because we’re required to apply all of that knowledge to our business. Each group has to have at least eight knowledge sponsors, which are real businesses that we have to visit to find out how they apply concepts that we’ve learned in class, and we end up seeing how all of these things we’re learning are used in the real world. To come up with a make-believe business, you have to know the business concepts inside and out and be able to use them correctly. It’s very challenging.”

As a group, the students tackle a variety of tasks during the semester, the most demanding being the preparation of an impressive 100+ page document that counts toward their fair grade. They turn it in shortly before the business fair and it is evidence of the group’s creativity, their meticulousness, their grasp and application of key concepts that were covered in class, the extent to which they have thought out their imaginary businesses and how well they pull together as a team.This is perhaps the most creative endeavor, when it comes to how classes of 500 or more should be taught, that I have ever seen. Magnificent! What Lynda and her colleagues have accomplished should be praised to the heavens. Provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson

Cleveland studies every word of the 70 or so two-inch thick documents, and they are evaluated by a panel of businesspersons and Cleveland’s graduate teaching assistants. Each document takes about five hours to grade.

Like everything else in the sunny town of Cleveland AT Texas, from the fuzzy dice used to teach probability to the Igloo ice chest that serves as a bank and the jail that hands out tickets for ringing cell phones or sleeping during lectures, the ceremonial turning in of the documents is just a little bit…different.

This semester students were lined up in the hallway by Cleveland’s office at 7 a.m. on the day that the document was due, some sleeping, others admiring their handiwork as they waited for Mayor Cleveland to arrive.

One business elected to deliver its document to the mayor and the city’s executive council on a remote-controlled Hummer, but the driver, suffering from post-document-preparation disorder, could not quite steer the vehicle in the proper direction. One company with a pet-related business delivered a wiggling, jumping cage that Cleveland was told to open with caution. Inside was the monstrous document. Yet another group donned crowns and delivered their document in royal regalia. One company, whose product is a clever “electronic receipt” that will eliminate the clutter of paper receipts, delivered its document in a box bursting with, of course, paper receipts that exploded onto the floor and table when the lid was removed.

Although completion of the hefty document is a watershed for most groups and Mayor Cleveland encourages her city’s residents to relax, enjoy the camaraderie, and have fun building their booth, it’s crunch time as far as some groups are concerned.

A group's booth at the Cleveland AT Texas business fair
A group’s storefront must reflect the business product that it has created.

It’s a mere two weeks before the fair kicks off, and one group is huddled around a table at Amy’s Ice Cream at 7 p.m., eating Mexican Vanilla with crushed Kit Kat bars and trying to figure out how to knock the socks off of the competition. Mayor Cleveland is in tow, along with a graduate teaching assistant, or, as the teaching assistants are known in Cleveland AT Texas, an executive council member.

By semester’s close, Cleveland will have attended at least 70 group meetings with teaching assistants Shelly Gehrke and Caroline Sullivan at locations all over Austin and at every time of day, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. If a group requests a meeting with the mayor, barring natural disaster or catastrophic illness, she is present.

“These kids are the world to me,” says Cleveland. “And watching their faces at the fair, seeing the pride and excitement, is worth everything. It’s certainly worth the hundreds of e-mails from them that I get a day with all sorts of questions and worth the phone calls at all hours and the times that I’ve been summoned to Brackenridge Hospital by someone there who says they have an injured kid who’s asking for ‘the mayor,’ worth the bowls of soup I’ve delivered. I’ve taught 12,000 kids here at UT since I came on board six years ago, and I’ve loved every minute of it.”

Fortunately for the anxious group at Amy’s, high butterfat ice cream seems to be a natural brain stimulant, and the group, by 10 p.m., has sketched out a concept that has the members excited and the mayor relieved. She, after all, has another group meeting to attend that night.

With ideas for their booths mapped out on paper, groups will construct “storefronts” that can be broken down and taken into the Texas Union ballroom the day before the fair begins. The booths must be eye-catching while at the same time remaining within the guidelines of the Union.

The business fair draws about 5,000 visitors and participants each year
The crowded, lively fair has been described as “a circus in a shoebox.”

During a semester, each group may spend only $150, which leaves them with the responsibility of approaching business sponsors for items such as PVC piping to build the booth’s frame or pens and caps to give away to visitors. Their clothing and demeanor must match the business that they are running, so groups may also have to solicit items such as aprons, jackets, animal costumes, stethoscopes or cowboy boots.

“We have so many businesses that are generous and help these kids every year,” says Cleveland. “Local ones like Toy Joy and Breed Hardware always come through for us as well as larger ones like Storage USA, Home Depot, Kinko’s and Lowe’s, for example. Enterprise Car Rental is the fair’s title sponsor this year, which is great, because, in addition to offering financial support, Enterprise representatives come right before the fair to sit down with the students and walk them through interviews, giving them pointers on how they can improve their interview skills.”

On the day before the fair, after the students have set up their booths, the ballroom is locked at 6:30 p.m. and a security guard is put in place to guard the “businesses.” Mayor Cleveland spends the night walking from booth to booth with a clipboard, taking notes, watching each Powerpoint presentation and video and reading all of the promotional materials.Spotted at past business fairs: 10-foot boa constrictor, miniature horses, 17-foot cell phone, 10-foot golden Oscar trophies, 16-foot talking Coke can, 12-foot Uncle Sam, Superman, a dunking booth, bathroom complete with recyclable water

“At this time of semester, Dr. Cleveland is the hardest-working woman on campus,” says Dawn Knox, an assistant director at the Texas Union and the individual who works with Cleveland’s class to set up the fair. “Starting the day before the fair, at 7 a.m., she’s at the Union until 6 a.m. the following morning. She watches to make sure the students are following the rules, helps them set up and spends the whole night grading their booths. Wednesday morning she leaves for about two hours, changes clothes and then is back for the grand opening of the fair. That day of the fair she stays until about 10 p.m. The amount of work and energy it takes to do this rather than just give lectures and grade tests, which is how she could choose to conduct the class, is unbelievable.”

Also unbelievable is the number and variety of participants who come together to make each business fair memorable.

Each semester the fair is opened by a special guest, with past “dignitaries” including everyone from the actual mayor of Cleveland, Texas, to the provost. This year’s honored guest will be a soldier home from Iraq.

To cover behind-the-scenes operations and keep the fair running smoothly, Cleveland enlists 6-8 student volunteers, dubbed Cleveland City Council members, who already have taken the class and participated in a past fair. Also present is a bodyguard, usually a former student, who is familiar with the layout of the booths. He escorts Cleveland through the pressing throngs, ensuring that she visits all 70 booths in a mere four hours while also having time to speak to the news media, meet parents who sometimes have traveled from several states away to attend the event and congratulate students.

“As Julie Delaney, one of my teaching assistants, describes it, the ballroom is ‘a circus in a shoebox’ for those few hours of the fair,” says Cleveland. “A nine-foot-tall papier-mâché glue bottle from one booth might scamper up and accost me and want me to stop, or a guy in a gorilla costume from another booth may try to grab me, and I have to cover a lot of ground if I’m going to get to visit all of the booths. It’s a touchy-feely day, though, and I’ve got to say, I sure do love all of the hugs I get from hundreds of sweaty, excited entrepreneurs.”

Lynda Cleveland poses with a student in a Spongebob Squarepants costume
Eyecatching costumes and booth designs woo judges and visitors.

Because the fair is a spectacle that can be appreciated by both young and old, each semester 300 students from Hill Country Middle School in Eanes and Windemere Elementary in Pflugerville visit and serve as junior judges, visiting booths and evaluating them according to criteria that Cleveland has developed. While at the fair, they receive a campus tour from Cleveland’s students and are treated to lunch. Last semester the students were taken to the LBJ School of Public Affairs to view a miniature model of the White House, which was on exhibit at the time. Prior to the fair, Cleveland visits the schools and explains to the young students what will be happening at the fair, describing the work that her students have done to create imaginary businesses and products.

“The students think it’s very special to have ‘a real professor’ come to class, and this actually ties in extremely well with what we’re covering,” says Vicky Abney, who teaches 6th grade computer education at Hill Country. “We talk about how important a professional image and your conduct are in the real world. We use the computer to put together resumes and business letters, and we spend a lot of time talking about jobs. By the time my students get to the fair, they understand what it’s going to be like to enter a world that’s not home and not school. And Dr. Cleveland does such a terrific job of enthusiastically welcoming them and showing them how appreciated their presence is.”

In addition to junior judges, businesspersons, faculty members and former students of the class attend the fair to evaluate the booths and give Cleveland feedback.

“I’ve been ‘promoted’ this year,” says Dr. Michael Brandl, a lecturer in the Department of Finance. “I’ll be responsible for judging the cream of the crop, the top echelon of booths that make it to the final stretch, and I’m really a very brutal judge. I don’t put up with any flak. I may pick up their document, let it flop open and start quizzing them about concepts on whatever page is showing. I ask very technical statistical questions, and I look carefully for flaws in their answers. I handle them just exactly the way I handle my MBAs.

Lynda Cleveland and her students stand in front of a green Cleveland City-Limit sign
“In addition to teaching the students about business, the fair is a way to make each and every one of them feel special,” says Cleveland.

“After doing that, I then go over with them what I was looking for in the way of an answer. Although I’m deliberately tough on them, I have to say that I’ve been very, very impressed with the work these students have produced over the past six years. These kids, after all, are not business majors, but in the course of one semester in Dr. Cleveland’s class they start to develop this intuitive business feel and sense, and you can see it in the way they conduct themselves at the fair.”

Despite the crusty judges, the costumes that itch in the heat of a packed room and the lack of sleep, most students find that 2 p.m. rolls around all too soon and suddenly it’s all over. The peppermints and suckers have been handed out to restless children, roll after roll of duct tape has kept a swaying booth from collapsing, the judges have finally announced the lucky fair winner and tearful parents have congratulated their future Michael Dell on a job well-done.

What took a day to assemble is dismantled in a little over an hour, and another year’s fair is a memory for students to recall with awe and boast about to friends.

“I like to do things a little bit differently,” says Cleveland. “I introduce my lesson on experimental design with an egg race in class, and we learn about standard deviation with teddy bears. I know that I don’t have to have a huge business fair to teach the students, but you know what, I think they absorb more this way, and most important, they feel special, like a unique individual rather than a number. Besides…it’s fun!”

Kay Randall

Photos of Dr. Cleveland: Marsha Miller

Photos of Cleveland AT Texas business fair: Caroline Sullivan

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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