Lunch with Oscar

I’m looking forward to having lunch with Oscar Rodriguez today. I consider Oscar to be “Engineering’s Entrepreneur in Residence.” My label short-changes Oscar’s many talents and experiences, but since most of my conversations with him focus on entrepreneurship at UCF it’s how I have organized him into the mental map that is my world.

My agenda with Oscar is pretty simple: I want him to critique my perception of a problem and if he validates my view, I am going to ask his help in developing what I think is a potential solution. I have found over the years that the most difficult thing in getting better results is to understand the true nature of the problem. Generally speaking, once you’ve identified the true problem, the solution becomes pretty apparent. I have also learned over the years that the world is filled with people who are trying to attach their “solutions” to “my problems.” This is known as sales.

So, here’s the problem: Some of our most high potential student entrepreneurs have trouble staying in school. There are several reasons why this might be true: One might be that these kids just were never meant to sit in chairs, follow rules and take tests. A slight variant of this explanation is that they are more interested in starting something than going to school. A slight variant of that explanation is that school doesn’t offer these young entrepreneurs what they need to meet their definition of success. From my perspective these are all just different ways of saying that there is something wrong with these young entrepreneurs, that they are in essence, academic lost causes.

I think there is something wrong with us. Business and Engineering at UCF, like most schools, has a system that is designed to get our students nice safe $40,000 to $60,000 a year jobs in companies where someone else is writing the check. To quote many a GEICO commercial: “It’s what we do.” To accomplish this, students sign up for classes, faculty teach and certify knowledge levels achieved, and students pay bills based on credit hours that can be traced back to contact hours linked to coursework. Grades, linked to knowledge levels, go on transcripts that then lead to graduation after 120 credits are earned.

But this is not how the most promising student entrepreneurs reveal themselves to us. They do this through student competitions and co-curricular activities like the LaunchPad, Upstarts, or use of maker-spaces that do not appear on transcripts, are not courses and do not generate revenue streams for the university. We don’t charge students for the costs of these activities and students cannot graduate from UCF by doing these things because we aren’t set up to meet to track the knowledge demonstrated by these student achievements and haven’t figured out what our contribution to these student outcomes are really worth.

In short, we are dabbling in entrepreneurship, hoping that a system that was designed to produce one set of outcomes ($40-60k jobs), can produce a very different set of outcomes (student entrepreneurs) by applying a little duct tape free of charge (co-curricular activities). In my mind, this is equivalent to the famous article about “rewarding A while hoping for B.” If we want to fix the problem that our best student entrepreneurs have trouble staying in school, the solution isn’t to get different students, it’s to change school by providing a new sustainable system that consistently generates these student outcomes and allows us to pay the bills. Provost Whittaker gave me an opening at a recent meeting to explore making this happen. I’m hoping Oscar will want to join in and figure this out because engineering is a key player in us developing scalable entrepreneurship.

I have such a cool job. It’s going to be an interesting lunch.

3 thoughts on “Lunch with Oscar

  1. What about creating some sort of “customized learning” platform for students like Oscar. Maybe the reason universities lose young entrepreneurs early on is because they simply cannot address their needs. Take a typical lecture hall with 50 students that hear the same message at the same time – are they better off with the traditional academic “cookie cutter” approach? Perhaps some are… but perhaps a few students would benefit from working at a different pace, on a different grading scale, focusing on different topics. Just a thought…

  2. I didn’t realize student entrepreneurs had trouble staying in school. This is a interesting read. Good luck with the meeting with Oscar.

  3. In terms of capturing and developing the entrepreneurial spirit of students, the key building blocks are in place. As you mentioned, there are already a host of competitions, incubator programs, and mentors available right on campus. Its a matter of folding those further into the curriculum and building off the knowledge professors are attempting to convey. Courses like Cornerstone and Capstone attempt to do this but in trying to correlate those courses with real-world experience and developing an idea into a business, they only scratch the surface.

    Longer form incubator programs (full-year or longer), incorporation into the curriculum, and even cooperation and development across colleges would go a long way in terms of developing budding entrepreneurs.

    I’m sure there are plenty of business students with an idea for a product or an app, with the relevant business concepts but no technical basis to actually develop a tangible product. Just as there are engineering students designing devices or software with the hopes of establishing a company, and no idea how to account for their research and development costs. Bridging the knowledge gap, as we have already seen in past campus competitions, has proven extremely beneficial; so we should cultivate these relationships between colleges and see what Knights can come up with.

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