A First Gen Lawyer-Turned-Entrepreneur Pioneers New Standards for College Freshmen

02/01/2017 10:08 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2018

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Bree Langemo was a first generation college student who learned early on that an entrepreneurial mindset was necessary to achieving her goals. Langemo earned her undergraduate degree in Accounting from Minnesota State University - Moorhead and later earned her law degree from Ohio Northern University. After spending over a decade working in higher education, she is now the President of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative (ELI), a global thought leader dedicated to expanding human potential through entrepreneurial mindset education. Bree will be speaking at the GlobalMindED conference this year. I recently sat down with Bree to learn about her journey:

You are a first generation to college student. What inspired you to go to university?

I was born and raised in Fargo, North Dakota to a stay-at-home mother and a father who worked for 30+ years for the United States Postal Service. Growing up, my father set the expectation that I would go to college, and he saved money to support me. In addition, I was fortunate enough to have teachers who believed in me, and that grew my confidence in my ability to do anything. I remember the first time I received straight A's and brought my report card home, my family was so proud, and that positive response was encouraging as well. It's important to have good mentorship and to build self-esteem in first generation to college students. It gives them the confidence that their goals are within reach, as my family and teachers did for me.


What influenced you to work in higher education?

My time as a teaching assistant in law school instilled a love of teaching in me, and I quickly became fascinated with individual students and how I could engage them in the classroom to support student success and learning. I fell in love with teaching and learning and helping individuals achieve their goals. I consider myself a lifelong-learner, and I firmly believe that, when teaching, you should be learning as much from the students as they are learning from you. Great teachers consider themselves facilitators of learning, not experts in classroom instructing.

Another thing that influenced me to work in higher education, specifically community colleges, was the access to education. I believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to have an education and better their lives; therefore, accessibility is vital. Community colleges open the door for students to work toward their dreams. Working in higher education is not just a job; it is a huge responsibility to help those students fulfill their dreams.

When you were the Dean of Business, Public Service and Social Sciences at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, what did you do differently to assure the success of the students?

Pikes Peak Community College took a leap of faith in requiring an entrepreneurial mindset for developmental education students to help them succeed, without having the data to know if it worked. They were early adopters, and I had the pleasure of helping coordinate the first rollout of the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program at PPCC. After years of leading or supporting student success initiatives, from mandating orientation, to redesigning academic advising, to being a co-campus lead for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Completion by Design grant, I came to believe that we could more quickly move the needle on student success if we could find a way to truly engage students from the onset of their education by focusing on their mindset and how to be entrepreneurial in their academics and in their lives. We saw immediate success, and that led to my transition to the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative. My career has always shifted to where I felt I could make the most impact. I came to believe that an entrepreneurial mindset is the foundation for student success, and I am now dedicating my career to working with educational institutions from K-12 to higher education around the world to instill this mindset in students. As the World Economic Forum states, we need to move entrepreneurship from the perimeter to the core of education, as all students will need entrepreneurship to thrive in the 21st Century.

What piqued your interest in GlobalMindED?

When I met you, it became clear to me that our organizations had a clear mission alignment, and the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative was a natural fit for GlobalMindED's entrepreneurial track. Both of our organizations understand that entrepreneurship is foundational to individual empowerment and growth and that bringing a global perspective into the mix is essential. After living in Colorado for five years, I believe that Colorado needs to be a global magnet for talent. GlobalMindED attracts people from the local, national, and international communities and brings them here to Colorado, which can drive economic development in our State. I think that the people of Colorado should support and care about the mission of GlobalMindED in effect to grow their own economy. I also was interested in GlobalMindED because my entire career has been focused on student success initiatives, especially with potentially at-risk students and first generation to college students. So, my interest was a combination of mission alignment between ELI and GlobalMindED, the potential for economic development in our State, and alignment with my own passion.

What unique challenges did you face in your academic career that you feel your non-first-gen peers did not?

I was fortunate enough to have financial support for my education from my father. Other first generation to college students may not be so lucky. That being said, when you are not exposed to higher education in the people around you, you really don't know what to expect. It is such a different world than high school. You walk into lecture halls with two hundred students, and a professor who may never know your existence, and that's hard. It can feel very impersonal. The large lecture halls, in my opinion, are a disservice to new students--to first generation college students, and to all students really. It does not promote a culture of connection, but rather one of isolation. Luckily, some universities lately have been focusing on cultivating a sense of belonging for students, which is critical to student success and persistence in those beginning days of college.

Having been in higher education, and now working in higher education, what opportunity for change do you see in higher education institutions?

The World Economic Forum has stated the need for entrepreneurship to move from the perimeter to the core of education. A lot of ELI's work right now is to empower higher education to do just that. At a time when entrepreneurship can feel like a fad, but when the world policy is wanting it at the core, higher education needs to do more than house it in the business department where students self-select in. It needs to be embedded in the thinking of the leadership, the faculty and the staff, and the students in order to truly see a shift. Furthermore, we need to redefine entrepreneurship in a way that anyone can embrace, because people don't understand what entrepreneurship is. If we can redefine it as a mindset, then we will have a common ground to start from. Ultimately, you will not see innovation in higher education unless you have entrepreneurial people to drive it. ELI works to cultivate entrepreneurial cultures by developing entrepreneurial mindsets at all levels of education - administrators, staff, faculty, and students.

You've achieved a lot in your career so far. Is there any advice you would like to give to first generation to college students?

Part of the entrepreneurial mindset is creating an intentional community of positive influence, which is the focus of Lesson 7: Community in the Ice House Program. You have to be intentional about creating a community of people that care about your success and help you thrive. Don't sit back and wait for them to come to you. There are going to be adversity and challenges, and that community of people will help you through those challenges. When I started college, I didn't have a sense of belonging. I wish I had been more intentional about creating that type community for myself earlier on.

In addition, first generation college students can be surrounded by negativity or unhelpful messages that may challenge why they are going to college. Creating a community of positive influence is even more important for first generation college students because they can be up against more adversity than the average student. So you have to put yourself out there and approach people. It will be scary at first, yes, but you will build the confidence you need. In the end, it is hugely rewarding because, ultimately, human connection is what helps us thrive.

Any closing thoughts you would like to address?

According to Gallup, 87% of employees are not engaged in their work--a colossal waste of human potential. The engagement issue starts long before graduates enter the workforce. From elementary to high school, student engagement will drop by 35%, which Gallup calls the student engagement cliff. If you can reach that untapped human potential early on, that is where students and employees will thrive and where they will flourish in school, work, and their lives. I hope one day the world will put all of us at ELI out of a job, because that means individuals, organizations, and communities are flourishing, and they will no longer need us. That is the world I want to live in, a world with highly engaged students, workers, and citizens.

Bree will be speaking at the GlobalMindED Conference this year, which is focused on access, equity and opportunity for first generation college students, underserved populations, those who work with them and those who hire them. The success of these students is a priority at the GlobalMindED Conference. Bree will be bring vital insight to the entrepreneurship track, which has been central to our success since we launched in 2014. Bree will be joined by Anna Ewing from the Colorado Innovation Network, investors who support women and minorities, Village Capital, Camelback Ventures, GSV Labs, the team from Watson University, and many others who are instilling an entrepreneurial mindset in those who need it most to succeed.