Harvard is set to launch a course to create entrepreneurs. Stanford launched one last year. But aren't entrepreneurs born and not made?
Akshay Kothari, 25, and Ankit Gupta, 24, had a simple idea — to create the best news reading experience on mobile devices. They created and launched an iPad app (christened Pulse) during the Launchpad class at Stanford. Kothari declared he could “die in peace” after Apple CEO Steve Jobs mentioned their product as one to keep an eye on at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference. Pulse has now grown to eight people, with apps for iPads, iPhones and Android platforms.
Kothari says Pulse may not have even existed if Gupta and he had not attended the Launchpad class, where some of Stanford’s most lucrative entrepreneurs cut their teeth. Introduced in 2010, in its first semester, 11 products and services were launched, collectively earning over $100,000 in revenue by the last day of class!
“The whole point of the class is to launch a product within the 10-week course period. In fact, we all signed a paper saying we wouldn’t pass the course if we didn’t launch. The beauty of the class, taught by Michael Dearing and Perry Klebahn, were the short exercises that we did every week. The two professors nudged us to think about everything — distribution, marketing and finance,” says Kothari.
Come September and Harvard will launch its new entrepreneurship course, i-lab. Harvard Business School (HBS) Dean Nitin Nohria sees the Harvard Innovation Lab as “a potentially quite distinctive resource” in the innovation space. i-lab will open its doors to students, faculty and alumni of the entire university to “leverage Harvard’s people and resources in new and exciting ways”, says Nohria.
“Our goal is to drive innovation by connecting entrepreneurial teams, not only across the Charles River, but nationally and internationally, in an interdisciplinary approach to creating viable business ventures and social initiatives,” he says.
It was believed that entrepreneurship was something genetic, that it couldn’t be taught. But B-schools over time have started getting better and better at ‘creating’ entrepreneurs. The idea that entrepreneurship could be taught in a classroom was championed by a few maverick professors who introduced entrepreneurship classes more than 20 years ago. The issue is being revisited, as entrepreneurial ventures or businesses that capture the benefits of uncertainty are being seen as the need of the hour.
Instead of teaching entrepreneurship in business schools using a planning-based mindset, which works well in teaching managers, leading universities are opting for an entrepreneurial mindset to nurture entrepreneurs.
Recalls Gupta of Pulse, “I come from an engineering background, from IIT Bombay. Design thinking was a completely new way of solving problems. Totally different from what I had been taught before and much more creative and free form. I learnt skills such as brainstorming, interviewing users, rapid prototyping, making mind maps that I could apply to any problem and coming up with creative solutions.”
Says HBS professor Peter Tufano, who drafted the initial proposal for i-lab, “Student entrepreneurs don’t respect academic silos, but often find it hard to connect across school boundaries. If we could find ways to facilitate those interactions, bringing them together in an environment that stimulates the sharing of ingenuity, knowledge, and skills, then innovation and creativity could flourish.”
In Harvard’s i-lab, some student teams will work as part of established courses while other student teams will work independently. For example, interdisciplinary student teams from Harvard, MIT and Tufts University, with backgrounds in business, government, law, medicine, engineering and science, will be part of a course that will be jointly taught by HBS and SEAS (Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences).
This course, called Inventing Backgrounds and Commercializing Science, will use the lab to commercialise university and private lab research. Some student teams would work independently in the lab along with HBS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, a group that has included the likes of Susan Decker, former president of Yahoo.
The intent is to create a supportive and interactive environment where ideas and activities can be shared across disciplines and experiences.
Entrepreneurs say they learn from their mistakes, and what better place to mess up than in the relatively cosy cocoon of a university? “Most importantly, I think I learned that creativity is always in hindsight,” says Gupta. “It’s not about just coming up with the one genius idea that solves the problem, but trying and failing at 100 other solutions before arriving at the best one. And the Stanford d.school [Institute of Design] taught me to fail fast.”
Infographic: Sameer Pawar
What about Indian B-schools — how good are they at teaching entrepreneurship? IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Calcutta have introduced a ‘campus placement deferment programme’ where graduates can try their hand at their own entrepreneurial ventures and return to participate in the campus placement programme the next year if they fail. But “there is an alarming gap in terms of the number of students coming forward to build enterprises, and the entrepreneurship education at universities in India to nurture these people,” says Yashveer Singh, founder of the National Social Entrepreneurship Forum.
Indian industry appears to be of the same opinion. “Most institutes are inward looking with insufficient interaction with industry,” says Suvojoy Sengupta, veteran recruiter from some of the top management schools in the country and head of Booz and Co. in India. Sengupta’s assertion that “not a single breakthrough management concept or idea has emerged [from Indian B-schools] in the past 30 years” is a wake-up call to temper a teaching-oriented culture with a research focus and experiential learning in our business schools.
Pramath Sinha, founding dean of ISB, puts the challenge in perspective: “In India, getting students is not the problem. Real investment has to be made in the faculty.”