Changing Mindsets

Universities, especially business schools, were designed to help people secure professional employment.  They are good at giving people skills through classroom instruction and co-curricular activities that large- and medium-size employers demand and at facilitating students’ transition to employment.  Witness our just-completed Internship Invitational where we helped 450 students meet about 50 employers eager to employ interns and identify future talent.  It was by all accounts a smashing success.

But a growing number of students are interested in being in charge of their own destiny after college.  Rather than work for someone else, they want to color outside of the lines. They want to start something: a business, non-profit or even a movement.  Maybe it is because job security is a thing of the past. Maybe it’s because the internet has reduced barriers to entry. Maybe it’s because these students came of age during the great recession and they don’t want to go through what their parents did.

Whatever the reason, these students are looking for a different experience that prepares them for a different world. Our response has been the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, the Blackstone Launchpad and the Joust — our “Shark Tank-like” business plan competition that’s open to students all across campus.  The semifinals are this week and involve student entrepreneurs from all over the university—-business students represent fewer than half of the 16 semifinalists. You can see the companies by clicking here.

Many of the student ventures taking part in the Joust were developed with the help of the Launchpad, Eli Squared and the Starter Space to name just a few.  Much learning and coaching goes on in these spaces. One might argue that for our entrepreneurial students, these activities provide them with at least as much valuable learning as traditional classroom training. Yet these activities go unrecognized on student transcripts and underfunded by university business models that see credit hour production as the vehicle for charging students and allocating funds to colleges. As demand for these experiences grow, we are going to need a way to fund these very labor intensive activities or they will collapse under their own weight.

To do this, we must expand our perspective on what competencies people need to develop to succeed in today’s world, how best to acquire them and how best to define success in the educational process.  We also need to recognize that public universities (and state legislatures) are especially risk-averse institutions that find discomfort in bold experiments. They prefer incremental innovation that can be linked back to tried and true methods. For entrepreneurial activities, perhaps we have one… Universities recognize that Ph.D. preparation is different than the other educational activities we have on campus.  It is largely an apprenticeship, and we have created dissertation credit hours as a way to monetize the mentor experience that turns students into scholars. Perhaps a similar approach could be used to help finance the transformation of students into entrepreneurs. Instead of completing a dissertation,  the culminating milestone could be the creation of a company with a minimum threshold of revenue.

Whatever the mechanism, we need to figure this out. The world is changing.  The mindsets of our students are changing. To drive change, we need to change, too.