OMG! There’s an entrepreneur on campus!

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Amid the debates about the role of government in facilitating the process of commercialization, as well as how to foster entrepreneurial attitudes and soft skills, an important institution is occasionally overlooked.

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By Francis Moran and Leo Valiquette

But where does good old-fashioned formal education fit into all of this? What role does, and should, a person’s alma mater play in the formation of the next generation of entrepreneurs?

Ken Banks, a mobile technologist, anthropologist and conservationist focused on how social entrepreneurship can address the ills of the developing world, noted a sharp distinction between students in the U.S. and his native Britain during his time at Stanford University on a fellowship.

“It became very clear to me very early on that people seemed more willing to take risk, not in terms of mortgaging the house, but that young entrepreneurs were willing to try something a little bit different,” he said. This was a departure from what he had seen in the U.K., where young people were much more likely to regard the glass as half empty and to pile up reasons why something could not be done.

In general, he found students at U.S. universities more willing to believe that “anything is possible” without the benefit of rich parents or some other form of entitlement.

It’s that kind of winning attitude that he believes is key.

“For me, an entrepreneur is a person who is good with the idea, who is good at formulating a solution and building a good team that can execute on it … you come across something that really switches you on and inspires you to create something and you don’t get that in a school.”

Maybe not, but the culture on campus certainly has the power to either encourage or discourage such entrepreneurial gusto. It’s not about technology transfer in the traditional sense, it’s about having an environment in which students with entrepreneurial ambitions can thrive.

‘Entrepreneur’ shouldn’t be a four-letter word

Beyond the shining stars such as Stanford and MIT, the culture typically found within the broader university community in the U.S. doesn’t nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs, said Ronald Weissman, chair of the Software Special Industry Group at Band of Angels.

While most universities have some form of technology transfer office to facilitate the commercialization of formal research, Weissman points out that the best ideas today are just as likely to come out of a dorm room as they are out of a lab. Too many universities fail to appreciate how Web 2.0 has democratized innovation for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and make the mistake of assuming it is only engineers or physics students who can come up with the next billion-dollar idea.

These outdated perspectives are further aggravated by student and faculty cultures that take a dim view of capitalism, scorn profit as a motive, and emphasize formal theory over practical, hands-on projects.

“If universities taught entrepreneurship as a value, we would all be better for it,” Weissman said. “If I were the head of a major university, I would love to see students demonstrate their prowess by starting things in the community, profit or non-profit … when you put students in a position to lead something, to start something, it gives them a very different view of the world.”

Schools must think about whether their intention is to prepare tomorrow’s business leaders or tomorrow’s employees, he said. In today’s marketplace, can the traditional classroom model still make the grade in terms of supporting the kind of creativity and leadership ability entrepreneurs need to succeed?

Weissman does praise those schools that have emphasized the value of bringing entrepreneurs into the classroom to make that “boundary between the business world and the classroom very porous, which is how it should be.” But it isn’t just about the classroom. One of the greatest strengths of MIT and Stanford, he said, is the “informal networks and meetups” that exist to help students come together and turn a great idea into a reality. It is the culture outside the classroom that matters.

It all comes down to making the numbers

Here in Canada, Wesley Clover’s Andrew Fisher often encounters ambitious grads who feel their formal education has prepared them for a corner office even though they have yet to pay their dues by demonstrating they can commercialize a product and generate sales.

He likes to use a hockey analogy: “No matter how good you are in the juniors, it’s a much more difficult and strategic game to go up to the NHL level.”

The issue from his perspective is that most curriculums focus too much on marketing and the research side of R&D, but too little on commercialization and sales.

“One of my biggest pet peeves is that if we are a truly innovation economy, and commercialization and sales is an important part of that, we fall hugely short, because we don’t do anything in that area,” he said.

“And what’s even more shocking is that it can be taught and not only that, university is probably a great place for these people to learn about it.”

His “crazy idea” is for universities to run a course in which students start the semester with a chunk of the phone book and must raise money for the university from a cold start. Whoever raises the most money gets the highest mark.

“That’s sales,” he said. “It’s going out there and finding a way to make it happen. If you can’t pick up the phone and you can’t close a deal, you fail, I hate to tell you. It’s very black and white. Either you hit your numbers or you don’t.”

It isn’t only sales, it’s the basis of entrepreneurship. What do you think? Is the typical campus culture too “left wing” and anti-entrepreneur? Does the structure of the traditional university curriculum foster an employee mindset that lacks the basic skills to be a successful entrepreneur? Which universities out there are getting it right and how?

This article is part of a continuing series examining the state of the ecosystem necessary to successfully bring technology to market and looking at what is working and what can be improved in the go-to-market ecosystem. It first appeared on


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Recent comments

  • Bill Cuming
    June 15, 2011 - 20:33

    The fact that your whole article is around Universities bothers me, and I am tired of working with degreed 'prima donas' . There is a stigma that entrepreneurs must be university educated, in fact in my experience this is not the case. In fact the education, attitudes and focus of academia is often counter to the approach and aptitude required to start and run businesses. The skills to innovate are important, but there is precious little money, time or patience for a detail orientated engineer or analytical scientist to establish a profitable corporation in today's markets. The results speak for themselves, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and the list goes on.

    • REID
      June 23, 2011 - 14:24

      Actually, both Gates and Zuckerbery attended Harvard...