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Despite the growing importance of the startup culture in keeping the US economy competitive, academia lags behind, preferring the tranquil process of turning out employees for corporations rather than nurturing future rulebreakers like Steve Jobs or Google co-founder Susan Wojcicki.
Professors Yael Hochberg and Jamie N. Jones are two women determined to change this through a ground-breaking Innovation and Entrepreneurship Programcurriculum they developed at Rice University in Texas. Hochberg, a career academic and professor of finance, and Jones, a health and water scientist who went on to found the impact-focused venture fund Impact Engine.
The two professors talk with Karma Contributing Editor Michael Moran about creating a curriculum for entrepreneurship and the opposition they still face inside academia.
Yael Hochberg: I think one of the things that’s fairly clear as you look at universities across the U.S. is that, for whatever reason, the Millennial Generation or the generation has a particular interest in the notion of determining their own futures and taking their own ideas and creating things around them and wanting to have impact. Many more of them are interested in the idea that instead of a job where they’re a cog in the machine, they’re going to have to create something for themselves. They want to feel they will impact the world and that whatever it is has meaning. And that has led to a cry for entrepreneurship education at the university level. It’s not confined to graduate business school students, or to business school students, either.
Michael Moran: So you and Dr. Jones have pioneered this curriculum at some of the nation’s top institutions. Now you’re really building this out at Rice. Why was there such resistance to this idea initially?
Yael Hochberg: If you step back ten years and looked at entrepreneurship education in the US, it was primarily a situation where we said things like we need an entrepreneurship course, but we’re not 100% certain how to deal with that because it’s not an academic discipline. So we go find a former entrepreneur and former investor, put them in the classroom and hope that they can teach effectively. For the most part, those became inspirational-type classes where someone would tell the story of what they had done or have their friends come in and tell the stories of what they had done. They lacked frameworks, they lacked rigor. Students might produce a business plan at the end of it, but in terms of transferable tools that they could then take to building a business for themselves in the future, It was hit or miss.
Over the last two years, entrepreneurship education changed completely. We actually have ways of thinking about how one actually teaches the tools and the framework and the skill set that are likely to make entrepreneurs more successful. We can’t give the students the ideas that are the next Facebook, or the next Cisco, or the next intel. We can’t give them the passion, or the personality characteristics necessary to be successful as an entrepreneur. But we can give them a set of tools and frameworks such that if they have an idea and they have the passion around it they’ll be less likely to fall prey to the pitfalls that often strike entrepreneurship ventures.
Michael Moran: Jamie, you’re a scientist. What drew you to entrepreneurship?
Jamie Jones: My transition came as a scientist. I had worked in industry as a scientist on product development. During my transition into the business side of things I started working on a global health product that was specifically looking at how to do serious HIV diagnostics in remote clinics in sub-Saharan Africa, where there are a lot of false results given out. It was through that work that I quickly realized that it does not matter how good the technology if you don’t have a business model that wraps that technology with an entrepreneurial vision of how you’re going to scale. So that was my pathway into entrepreneurship.
Michael Moran: Tell me a bit more about the program at Rice. You’re not an academic department, as such, but you have now eight classes up and running and are expanding. What’s it all about?
Yael Hochberg: When I arrived at Rice in 2013 there wasn’t a whole lot going on outside the business school program for the graduate students. I took this notion that we can teach tools and frameworks that I have been observing and been part of developing for the past 10 to 15 years to develop a curriculum for the undergraduate program. So, together with Jamie and other faculty members that I’ve recruited over the last four years, we’ve built a curriculum around this that is meant not necessarily to get students to start their own businesses, but it is meant to get students to think in an entrepreneurial fashion about how they can take their ideas and put them into action. It is about teaching entrepreneurial mindset as well as the frameworks and tools.
So, how do you think entrepreneurially? How do you think about what it means to be providing a service or product that has value to a customer? How do you iterate? How you experiment? How do you develop things under situations of uncertainty? How do you finance a new business? And so forth.
Michael Moran: I’ve taught at a few universities and I have found them almost impervious to experimentation when it comes to courses that cross departmental lines. What argument do you make to break down the rigid departmental structure of a university setting?
Yael Hochberg: The good news is that students are demanding it. Whereas 15 years ago, the attitude was, ‘if we really have to teach entrepreneurship, we’ll will teach that one course and that will check the box, today I think most business school deans realize that there’s an imperative to truly teach entrepreneurship. I hate to say this out loud but I am going to say it: most universities are funded primarily by philanthropy. Most of the philanthropy comes from successful entrepreneurial alumni. So at the top levels of the administration, there’s a recognition that if we provide support to students who are later going to go out and create a large business empires that they can attribute back to the university, there’s a higher chance that they’re going to come back and fund the fundamental research and the faculty positions and everything else.
Michael Moran: So you are drawing students from outside the business program? How do the other departments feel about that?
Jamie Jones: Yes, we have the student interest and it is coming from all across campus. We certainly have a natural connection to the engineering sciences and math sciences but we see students from around campus. We have students from the Shepler School of Music who are taking our entrepreneurship classes and are looking at starting a digital platform that exposes concert musicians to a broader audience. We have students from the School of Architecture who are thinking about building for a more sustainable future. And there’s more resistance in that department, but our student examples are helping us make the case.
One of our current All-Star students is actually getting ready to finish her degree in philosophy. But she’s spending the coming summer in an internship at an early stage, engineering-based early stage startup. She brings a really unique perspective on tackling hard questions of the interface between science, technology, entrepreneurship and society. So we’re starting to see students who search for the nexus of whatever their passion is with the ability to combine that with an entrepreneurial mindset and really drive that change that they’re wanting to create that society.
Yael Hochberg: It’s true that entrepreneurship is a relatively new discipline and it’s often not thought of as an academic discipline. That means that for other schools at the university, it’s sometimes hard to convince them that their students should be part of. I think these things are viewed as threats. If the students have entrepreneurship offerings then they’ll be super-excited by those, so they won’t come and take French history or something else. There’s a fear in the academy that we would be cannibalizing other programs, I don’t think that that’s actually a reality or something that people should be concerned about, but I know it exists.