Rebecca Gill was on her couch when an idea popped into her head. “I was watching the Inventing Anna docudrama on Netflix, and I became aware of how many of these fraud entrepreneur documentaries and docudramas were being made,” she says. “I thought, what’s going on here?”

Gill, the Larry J. and LeAnn E. Merlo Presidential Chair for Communications and Entrepreneurship, took that curiosity a step further. She knew many of her students at Wake Forest were interested in high-profile fraud cases, including Billy McFarland’s Fyre Festival and the downfall of Theranos and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. “So,” she says, “I decided to teach a class to explore it.”

That class, “How To Be a Con Artist: Stories of Fraud, Entrepreneurship, and the Social Imagination” (COM 370/ENT 302), helped students to explore the people behind the sensational stories and to think critically about what led people to do what they did. In the course, students examined the role of celebrity and social media, but also examined the virtue of honesty and the entrepreneurial ethos of “fake it ’til you make it.” 

Gill says her participation in the Program’s 2022 Course Development and Redesign Workshop gave her the tools and terminology to examine and discuss the character behind the cons. “[That] workshop really helped me to understand what virtues and vices I might talk about,” she says. During the semester, she focused on perseverance, courage, transparency, and secrecy. The course also focused on learning what not to do. “I really drew on counter-exemplars—the people who tend to give in more to their vices than to their virtues,” Gill says. “At a very basic level, we can learn how people who may have seemingly good intentions may fall into a path of making poor decisions, have unethical behavior, and show some of the tensions that our students might face in the workplace themselves.”

If you’re interested in some of the issues Gill and her students discussed, we’ve made a video that explores her course, “How To Be a Con Artist,” in detail. You can watch it here or above.

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