Graduate Management News

Innovation Gives Structure to Entrepreneurial Thinking

Innovation is a hot topic in business schools, but what does it mean, and how do you teach it? In conjunction with the Ideas to Innovation Challenge, a two-phase commitment by GMAC’s US$10 million MET Fund in which schools can win funding to bring innovation to management education, Graduate Management News is presenting a quarterly series of guest columns by deans on innovation and management education. In June, Sir Andrew Likierman explained why it’s important for London Business School to teach innovation. In this column, Raghu Tadepalli explains how entrepreneurial thinking drives innovations such as the new core curriculum at F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College.

By Raghu Tadepalli

There’s this debate going on, asking, “Can entrepreneurship be taught?  Should it be taught?” At Babson, where we have focused on entrepreneurship for more than three decades and offer approximately 60 entrepreneurship courses across all disciplines every year, we believe entrepreneurship definitely can and should be taught.

For us, entrepreneurial thinking is a state of mind, and innovation builds structure around entrepreneurial thinking. It’s what happens when you’re really forced to sit down and say, “How do we take this idea and apply it so that we can do it better?” One has to think through things very carefully but not get hung up on the idea that you have to have the perfect business plan before you can do anything. Trying things out in small increments, learning from them, making changes, and then trying again is a process that can be taught.

A Broad Definition

The tagline that we use nowadays is “Entrepreneurship of All Kinds.” It is for small businesses; it is for growing businesses; it is for large businesses. It involves social entrepreneurship, and it involves entrepreneurship in the public sector, because every part of the world is crying out for individuals who are willing to challenge the status quo, who are looking to do things in a different way, and who are constantly saying, “How do I make an impact?”

I tell my students the reason companies are able to survive 100 years, 150 years, is because they’ve been able to create pockets of entrepreneurial thinking, risk taking, and innovation, and they’ve built a reward system around that. These companies are able to come up with new products and new ways of satisfying needs, and they manage to survive and prosper.

At Babson we have built an ecosystem around entrepreneurship. We have a Summer Venture Program in which 10 to 15 undergraduates and 10 to 15 graduate students with business ideas spend the summer on campus. They’re mentored by faculty members, and they get to meet with attorneys, marketing people, and other experts to refine their ideas before they present them to the Babson community.

It’s not uncommon for those who do well to be approached by either our faculty or members from the Babson Friends Network saying that they want to support them. We continue to mentor them during the school year, and last year, we leased 15 spaces in a building in downtown Boston, an incubator where people whose ideas have really advanced can work with similar-minded individuals. The plan is that within a nine-month period, they’re ready to launch their businesses. We’ve extended a commitment to them, and our faculty continue to advise them.

‘Entrepreneurship 2.0’

Entrepreneurial thinking also guided what we call Entrepreneurship 2.0, a common core experience that is starting with our incoming classes this fall. When I got here in 2009, the four MBA programs (one-year, two-year, evening, and fast track) each started at a different time and each targeted a slightly different audience. They were very different in terms of both length and core curriculum. But we had only one degree, the MBA for everyone. My challenge to the task force was: “I want you to look at redesigning the entire MBA experience from the minute the student arrives at Babson to the time the student graduates. How do we make sure that students are going to leave feeling that they got a fantastic experience at Babson?” 

We went about creating a common core. Obviously, core courses are taught slightly differently for the different programs. A marketing course targeted to individuals with about 14 years of experience uses different cases than the two-year MBA program, where there could well be somebody who has never had a course in marketing. But even if the course content is different, the core concepts are the same. So when we open up the electives to MBA students across the different programs, they all have a fairly similar background in terms of what they learned in the core courses.

Over the summer, about 30 faculty teaching in the core met for six and half hours to exchange information. Each of the module coordinators and faculty presented what they’ll be covering: the concepts, the learning objectives, the cases they are going to use. By the end of the meeting, we all knew what is going to be covered, so if the faculty want to make connections, they know what connections they can make. I think the students will benefit from a curriculum and an experience that has been talked through from start to finish.

As we learn and change and try again, maybe Entrepreneurship 2.0 can become a case study in innovation.

Raghu Tadepalli is Murata Dean of the F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College.

For more on how your school could win funding to implement management education innovations, find out more about the GMAC MET Fund’s Ideas to Innovation Challenge

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