Entrepreneurial Thinking Anchors William & Mary’s Approach to Teaching Entrepreneurship
Fostering the mindset that entrepreneurs possess is what we should cultivate in graduate management students.
Earlier this year, I gave a presentation to a group of alumni that describes where we are headed at the Alan B. Miller Entrepreneurship Center. I began my presentation with a title slide that included a giant image of an iceberg, with the heading: “Startups are just the tip of the iceberg.”
This title was meant to catch people's attention. I come from a startup and venture capital background, and it would be understandable for people to expect those ideas to form the foundation for the next phase of the Entrepreneurship Center. My experience in startups and customer-centric innovation has taught me, however, that most new ventures fail because of a lack of market traction, and there’s a risk that focusing purely on startups at William & Mary would potentially exclude many individuals from the wonderful concepts entrepreneurship has to offer.
As the image of the iceberg remained on the screen, I shared my opinion that everyone in the room could be an entrepreneurial thinker. Though not everyone will be startup founders, we can all leverage entrepreneurial thinking no matter who we are and what we do. The punchline of the presentation is that entrepreneurship doesn’t only equal startups.
Our focus at the Alan B. Miller Entrepreneurship Center is entrepreneurial thinking—the critical skills and mindset that entrepreneurs possess—which is what we want to cultivate in our students. Here’s how we define these key components of entrepreneurial thinking.
- Opportunity Discovery The ability to spot opportunities where others do not.
Failing Wisely Risking what you can afford to lose and making certain that learning is a primary goal.
- Improvisation Putting something out into the world and adjusting course as necessary.
- Collaboration The ability to pull in complementary perspectives and skills on projects.
- Openness to Risk Turning towards opportunity rather than away, even when there is risk of failure.
Tolerance for Ambiguity Resisting the urge to try to predict the future and instead letting the best plan go forth.
- Grit Persistence in the face of challenges.
- Self-Direction Not waiting for instruction, and a bias towards personal action.
An exciting part of this focus is that it’s not just for business students at the center. We believe that entrepreneurial thinking, rather than simply startups alone, will allow us to reach across campus and throughout our community. This has the effect of enhancing our MBA entrepreneurship programs because of the increased diversity of ideas and people in our events and courses.
Learn, Engage, Build
The way we're going to cultivate entrepreneurial thinkers across the campus is through our Learn, Engage, Build model. This model provides a guide for all programs and activities of the center. The Learn category covers the foundational and broadly applicable learning experiences that cultivate entrepreneurial literacy and skills. At the MBA level, these are our graduate courses and concentrations. The Engage category is comprised of direct experiences in entrepreneurship that immerse students in the practice of entrepreneurship. Engage is all about exposing students to entrepreneurship as its practiced and interacting with entrepreneurs, founders and investors. These are trips to local and global entrepreneurial ecosystems, founder speaker series, and new clubs on campus. Finally, students get hands-on, direct application of tools and skills that build entrepreneurship competency and the entrepreneurial mindset in the Build “bucket.” These are the various competitions we support such as a three-day startup competition called “Catapult” and a new partnership with the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program. The Build category also includes student venture seed funding and entrepreneurial internships.
The next chapter of the Entrepreneurship Center is guided by a few fundamental principles. First, we will tightly integrate coursework with hands-on learning experiences. We believe that creatively integrating curricular and co-curricular learning experiences amplifies entrepreneurial thinking. We are going to reach out early and find the students in their first year who are predisposed to this way of approaching the world. Through scholarships, mentor programs and other intentional development, we believe we can cultivate a crop of entrepreneurial thinkers who will be advocates on campus and beyond. We also believe in skinned knees and learning by doing. We will provide numerous opportunities for students to experiment and to try out these methods for themselves. And finally, we're going to push hard for entrepreneurship to extend far beyond the business school. We believe that entrepreneurial thinking amplifies the skillsets gained across the entire campus.
We’re already making progress on this next chapter, buoyed by huge interest across campus in entrepreneurship. A recent survey of a random sample of 350 William & Mary students found that 90 percent indicate an interest in incorporating entrepreneurial methods into their studies. To begin harnessing that interest, we’ve launched new clubs, competitions, and entrepreneurial ecosystem trips.
Another development intended to attract and cultivate more entrepreneurial thinkers is a new entrepreneurship co-working space set to open in mid-November. The new Miller Entrepreneurship Center will be an entrepreneurial hub where students from across campus can come to work on their ideas, interact with faculty and mentors, and connect with entrepreneurs from the community.
We have great tailwinds in the form of exceptional student interest, faculty and administration buy-in, and a core group of committed supporters who’ve been a part of writing the center’s first chapter. The next chapter is off to a great start and we’re thrilled to begin seeing the many ways our MBA graduates will be using entrepreneurial thinking in the workforce—some as founders of their own companies...but many as “stickier” employees made more valuable by their entrepreneurial skills and mindset.
About the Author
Graham Henshaw is Executive Director, Alan B. Miller Entrepreneurship Center at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, College of William & Mary.