Professor Toftoy gives students hands on experience

School of Business and Public Management professor Charles Toftoy is a man dedicated to his community, a leader in the business world and a professor who brings the real world to his students’ fingertips. Tofto, who has taught at GW for nine years, is director of the Entrepreneurship/Small Business Program. The program has won several awards for its work in the community, helping to change many businesses in the District.

Toftoy said he believes one of his primary tasks as a professor is to be able to bring the real world to his students. He thinks the best way to learn is through experience, and he tries to bring real-world experience to the classroom.

We’ve got to get students ready for real business life, Toftoy said. The cornerstone of the business school is to be able to do that.

Students in the Enterpreneurship/Small Business Program work with local businesses on different issues. Students go in teams to local businesses and have the opportunity to speak with the owners. The entrepreneur shares stories of how the business started and tells students the current state of the business, including problems they might be facing. Students then work with this business for the rest of the semester offering possible solutions to these problems.

Toftoy makes the effort to get to know each of his students personally before setting them up with their respective businesses. This way he can customize their learning by pairing them up with a business that suits the student’s particular focus.

Customizing programs to meet the student’s needs is very important and can help the student gain maximum benefit from their experience, Toftoy said. I had a student who was interested in construction so I lined him up with a construction company and he ended up working with the vice president of the company to develop marketing strategies. To me, this is huge part of my job as a professor. I have the ability to change my students’ lives.

Second-year graduate student Regina DiBenedetto, who serves as the operations manager for the program, said students benefit from hands-on experience with local businesses.

Being able to hear the story of how someone actually did it and the process it took to get there is very inspiring, she said.

Toftoy said students gain self-confidence by working directly with business owners. Students learn from mistakes the business owners make in their operations and learn how these mistakes can be corrected, he said.

Toftoy also has a strong dedication to the community. He said one of the best parts of this program is that helping small- and medium-sized businesses get stronger is a great service to the community.

Toftoy also works with the Junior Achievement program. This program invites business owners to go into public schools and spend an hour a week with students, teaching and answering questions. Since last January, Toftoy’s students have visited local schools once a week to meet with students from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

Students in Toftoy’s class have also worked with the Georgia Avenue Business Center on the Georgia Avenue Project. The purpose of the project is to help small- and medium-sized local businesses on Northwest D.C.’s Georgia Avenue and to increase awareness of these businesses in the community.

The center is here to help small and medium-sized businesses on Georgia Avenue grow and strengthen, said Telaekah Brooks, the director of the center. Many of these businesses have been here for thirty years in times of economic crisis, since we’re in an economic boom now, some of these businesses are being eclipsed by bigger ones.

Brooks said having students offer the businesses their help and knowledge has been a positive experience for all involved.

I think Dr. Toftoy’s idea is an excellent idea, she said. Many small business owners have a great expertise in their particular trade on a practical level and students offer some of the new techniques and new technologies that are out there on a completely different level. Pairing the two up is mutually beneficial.

Businesses are open to having students come in and offer their help, and Brooks said she receives only positive feedback from the business owners.

Having the students work with local business owners gives them a real way to get to know the inner workings and hidden mechanisms of the business while at the same time giving the business owners the fresh new approaches of the students, Brooks said. Another very important thing it does is the fact that this whole experience makes sure the students are giving something back to the community.

Toftoy and the students in his classes have also worked on projects with at-risk teenagers, motivating them and helping them on the path to future success. Students are also getting involved in the homeless walk that takes place Nov. 18.

Toftoy combines the local business work and community experience with an interactive and dynamic classroom experience.

I work hard to make my classroom an interactive one, he said. Students should not merely be reading from textbooks. The classroom experience should be full of activities and learning in new ways. I love to play games in my classes to get the students involved and excited.

Toftoy makes time to create games such as a Getting to Know You. After having students fill out a biography, Toftoy compiles a game of bingo in with information tidbits about different students on the board’s numbers. Students then have to find the person to whom the information applies and have them initial their board.

This is a great way for students to get to know each other, Toftoy said. I think it is so important for the students to really feel comfortable with one another. The retention of knowledge is so much higher when dealing with people you know well and are comfortable with.

Another thing that is very important to Toftoy is getting feedback from the students about his classes. He often takes several students to lunch after his classes to hear their opinions on the class.

He said the best way to find out how the progress of the class is going is to talk to students about it. Taking the time to get students’ feedback will lead to students getting the most from his class, which to him is most important, Toftoy said.

I think today’s generation of students is looking for vitality in the classroom, he said. They seem like they don’t just want to be sitting back and taking notes.Toftoy has made immense contributions to the community and to the business world and has been recognized by several institutions for them. Ernst and Young named him the National Entrepreneur of the Year in 1999. He was also selected for the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame as a lifetime member. Toftoy was recognized by the United States Association of Small Business and Entrepreneurship and was presented with the Education Pedagogy Award for Outstanding Contributions (best innovation in the classroom) for the teaching of entrepreneurship in 1998. The United States Association of Small Business and Entrepreneurship has also recently recognized Toftoy’s undergraduate course as the second best entrepreneurship program in the country.

The recognition will not slow him down, Toftoy said.

When I get an award, it tells me I have to work harder, he said. I never just want to rest on these awards. It’s so important to try to keep reaching new levels and not settle because of an award.

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