The Lesson Barbie Can Teach Higher Education

This year, Barbie’s Career of the Year is “entrepreneur.” The iconic doll for 2014 is smartly dressed in a pink sheath with black stilettoes and matching bag. And Mattel makes sure to characterize “entrepreneur” as a career. A career is a calling. The message to little girls is that you can be an entrepreneur – in all that you do. You can dream, you can learn to be resilient, you can execute, you can be innovative in your life and career. It doesn’t mean that if you don’t start a company, you are not an entrepreneur.

Mattel got it right.

I am frequently asked, particularly since I became the dean of Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship, if it is really possible to teach someone to be an entrepreneur. Most of those inquisitive individuals already have the answer in their heads: “Of course not. You can’t teach someone to be an entrepreneur.”

This perception is most likely based on several assumptions. I know them by heart now:

  • Being an entrepreneur is genetic
  • Starting a new company is hard
  • Not everyone wants to start a company
  • Everybody can’t be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc …
  • Entrepreneurs are “one of a kind” individuals

I don’t totally disagree with these statements. There is some truth to some of them. However, there are two related assumptions underlying these perceptions that do not necessarily hold up.

The first assumption lies in definition of the word “entrepreneur.” Nine times out of 10, everyone thinks that to be an “entrepreneur” one has to start a company.

In my view, this is incorrect. The origin of the word “entrepreneur” can be traced back to a French derivation, which means to “undertake” or “undertaker.” Being an entrepreneur is about taking initiative, being flexible, taking calculated risks, knowing how to dream AND do. Being an entrepreneur is a habit of mind; an innovative approach to life, career and profession. The entrepreneur is the person who is resilient, incorporates innovative thinking in all they do, takes initiative, executes. These are attributes that are critical to working in a company, to starting a company, to managing a career. Entrepreneurs learn from failure and pivot (in the latest lean-start up terminology).

The second assumption is equating the terms “entrepreneur” and “entrepreneurship.” The former is a person; the second is a process. And here is where most colleges and universities get it wrong with entrepreneurial education. Most entrepreneurship programs are typically housed in the business school or department, focus on teaching the process of entrepreneurship: writing a business plan, estimating future revenues and expenses, evaluating opportunities, understanding venture capital funding, learning about incorporation.

These are valuable topics. Valuable, but lacking, because they are devoid of the person.

Higher education needs to take a cue from Barbie. We should be graduating students into the 21st century workplace who now, more than ever, need to be entrepreneurs. They will not have the same job or employer for even 10 years. They will need to learn how to pivot, how to continually reinvent themselves, how to — dare I say it — work for themselves.

Higher education must teach students how to be the entrepreneur together with the process of entrepreneurship. It is a whole new approach and one that some universities are beginning to, well, “undertake.” It means that as educators we have to reimagine our entrepreneurship programs — to incorporate lots of experiential learning so students can fail and recover; to incorporate multiple courses in communication skills, negotiations, team building and leading. And to make students demonstrate these skills. This is a different and complementary approach to teaching the process of entrepreneurship. And it takes an entrepreneurial approach on the part of our universities.

I am a firm believer that we can teach someone to be an “entrepreneur.” In fact, I’m hoping that next year Mattel will make “Entrepreneur” the career of the year for Ken, too.

Implementing Innovations

Technological and organizational improvements for your company abound: new information and knowledge management systems, new machinery and equipment, or internally generated new administrative processes. These innovations may provide great efficiencies and improved products and services. However, they are only effective if they are actually used by employees correctly and consistently.

Managers may mandate employees to use innovations, but successful implementation is not guaranteed. Employees may be fearful of change; unsure of how to use the new technology or system or be fearful that it might adversely impact their roles or resources.

There are things you can do to make sure that the innovation that you invested in is actually used. First, you must show strong enthusiastic and continued support for the innovation. If not, employees view the innovation as a passing fancy. Another key factor is financial resources. It takes money to offer training, support, and a communications plan to educate about the merits of the innovation. Finally, the organizational culture can make a difference. Cultures that encourage risk taking, learning and experimentation are more conducive to innovation adoption.

To realize the benefits of the innovations you adopt, you need to invest in supporting those who must use them.

Donna De Carolis
Dean

Overcoming Obstacles to Change

Any type of organizational change is difficult to implement. Yet all companies need to continually change and improve to remain viable in their respective industries. One major mistake that leaders typically make when trying to achieve change or improved performance is not establishing the proper goals and expectations. Frequently, broad-sweeping goals are announced with little thought as to who is accountable and how the company will get there.

Research shows that this really stems from anxiety. Being clear about the specifics of attaining a goal requires considerable thought, investigation, and discussion. It is much easier to say, “We need to speed up product development,” than to articulate how we might actually do that.

This is why it is worth the extra time up front—if you are serious about achieving change—to work with the appropriate managers and teams in designing a change plan for each goal. This can be as simple as a workshop aimed at identifying five or so steps that must be taken to set the plan in motion, and also making sure that someone or a group of people will be accountable. Finally, recurrent follow up will motivate the change effort.

Engaging the workforce in setting the goal and designing the steps to achieve that goal will relieve the anxiety. The other added benefit is the valuable input and perspective that you can get through such participation.

When you de-mystify the ambiguity in achieving a new goal, you increase your chances of success.

Donna De Carolis
Dean

Preparing for Success in the New Year

How do you spell success?  Now is the time to define your top objectives for 2014 in order to achieve success.  Also, while your big goals are focused on profits, revenues, and market share, make sure to keep in mind the smaller tactics that lead to those goals.

As the New Year is upon us, now is the perfect time to re-visit and upgrade the basics that drive overall objectives.

For instance, market to current and former customers.  Satisfied customers are the ones most likely to be future customers or to refer others to you.  Don’t neglect to continue to market to them, so your name stays in their minds.

Do you have an effective way to organize and stay in touch with your contacts, something that you can access from mobile devices?  If your list of contacts is getting unwieldy, consider a service like Salesforce.com.

Make it a priority to contact at least five prospects per week, or ten, or twenty.  Make the quota realistic and continue to consistently promote your company.

If you haven’t already, activate social media marketing.  Facebook and Twitter might not make you money, but at least you will increase your visibility.

Your business New Years resolutions should be tactical as well as strategic.

Wishing you a very prosperous and healthy 2014!

Donna De Carolis
Dean

Revisiting the Elevator Pitch

Dynamically portraying your company is one of the most important things that an entrepreneur does, especially in the formative stages of a new venture.  Being able to quickly encapsulate the unique aspects of your product or service in a compelling manner is fundamental to gaining customers, investors, and building your brand.  This is known as the elevator pitch.

The elevator pitch — so named because it should not last longer than an average elevator ride — is far too important to ignore.  While you may not always deliver the pitch in an elevator, there will be occasions every day when you describe your new venture to others.

If you do not have an elevator pitch, create one, and rehearse it.  Make sure it articulates the added value that your company brings.  Use analogies; keep it simple; avoid lots of technical terms.  You don’t want to put people to sleep.  Emphasize your company’s unique advantages.

If you already have an elevator pitch, revisit it.  Every company grows and changes as customer needs and products evolve. When you update marketing materials, update your pitch.

Finally, don’t feel tied to one elevator pitch.  You should be able to tailor your pitch to a particular audience, highlighting what may be relevant to them about your company.

– Donna De Carolis, Dean

Accelerators vs. Incubators

So you have a start-up and are thinking about moving into either an accelerator or an incubator.  Which is more appropriate for your company?

While both are designed to facilitate the growth of new ventures, there are differences in their methods.

Incubators provide office space and shared facilities, such as telecommunications and Internet connections, in a dedicated building.  They also offer advice and guidance from professionals such as accountants, marketing consultants, and mentors. Entrepreneurs typically stay in an incubation center for three to five years, although there is no maximum period.  Incubators are good arrangements for early stage companies.

Accelerators foster rapid growth; typically housing later-stage companies.  While offering advice and shared facilities, they aim to turn ideas into prototypes in a matter of months.  Sponsors may provide funding or take a small equity position in the company. The incubation period is short and intense. A business accelerator is appropriate for start-ups that want to reduce time-to-market, rather than grow gradually.

While these are general guidelines, you should investigate any incubator or accelerator and determine their policies and how they might facilitate or inhibit the growth of your company.

–Donna De Carolis, Dean