Lessons Learned at Higher Ed Entrepreneurship Conference

Several Foundation staff attended the 7th Annual Deshpande Symposium for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Higher Ed at UMass Lowell in June, which was arguably the best one yet.  The Deshpande Symposium brings together innovators and thought leaders in Higher Ed to examine best practices in launching innovative programs and creating entrepreneurial campuses, to share their programs successes, and to build collaboration to strengthen their campuses and communities.  The Deshpande Symposium attracts attendees from across the globe; Ohio was well-represented by staff and faculty from many of our collegiate partners in Northeast Ohio.  Here are some highlights and lessons gleaned from Foundation attendees:

The Keys to Accelerating Innovation
Julie Lenzer, Associate Vice President of Innovation and Economic Development and Co-Director of UM (University of Maryland) Ventures, opened the symposium with an energetic keynote address focused on the role of universities in accelerating innovation and impact.  In her position, she is charged with fostering and deploying innovation to drive greater economic and social impact from UM. 

Lenzer expounded on the 3 Ps to accelerating innovation: people, programs, and policy. She stated that people serve as curators to attract and align others, thereby building tightly-woven networks of innovators, mentors, and collaborators.  Lenzer spoke about the importance of value versus duplication in programming and knowing when to shut down unsuccessful or defunct programs.  She cautioned the audience to be aware of the ever-changing regulatory landscape particularly in the energy and healthcare industries. 

Lenzer defined an ecosystem as “a network of many different types of actors working in inter-connected nodes.”  According to Lenzer, culture, connectivity & communication, and celebration are key pieces of a successful ecosystem.  Culture supplies the mortar of an ecosystem by providing common language, norms, practices, inclusivity, and customs. Connectivity and communication are crucial to sustainability and engagement.  She referenced examples of shared campus calendars and CRMs as platforms for managing relationships and tracking data.  Celebration includes story-telling and knowledge dissemination necessary to share lessons learned and inspire others.

Building One Global Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
Jonathan Ortmans, President of Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN), discussed what he called “The New Normal – Uncertainty and Digital Disruption.”  He noted that entrepreneurs relish uncertainty and are also creative, open-minded, and connected.  He stressed that connectivity is vital to building one global entrepreneurial ecosystem and fostering deeper international, cross-border collaborations between entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, policymakers, and entrepreneurial support organizations.  According to Ortmans, the thicker the connectivity the faster the impact. 

Building a global entrepreneurial ecosystem means connecting all the smaller systems into one large structure.  Ortmans presented various maps showing the density of entrepreneurial ecosystems throughout the world.  He believes that in the U.S., the focus should be on underserved populations.   Overall, he stressed the need for more entrepreneurs; however, he cited one discussion with representatives of Turkey whose answer to that was to require all mothers to have four children!  He emphasized integrating disruptors versus the status quo, and thinking globally on day one.  Ortmans also pointed out that peer review analysis of what works is essential.

Entrepreneurship education at the collegiate level is a key factor in building a global entrepreneurial ecosystem, and the density of students at colleges and universities is an asset that the U.S. has over other counties.   While the average age of an entrepreneur is currently 42, many ventures include both young and more seasoned entrepreneurs.  Ortmans noted that there is a distinct shift in culture on campuses, and that the current value proposition is that student entrepreneurs are happy to do well financially, but not at the expense of doing good.  He believes this transformation will be permanent. 

How to Rebuild the Partnership Between America and its Colleges and Universities
Buck Goldstein, Professor of Practice at the University of North Carolina and co-author of upcoming book Our Higher Calling Rebuilding the Partnership between America and Its Colleges & Universities, led a provocative discussion of the challenges currently facing the country’s institutions of higher learning and what can and cannot change—and what should and should not change.   Also included on this panel were representatives from M.I.T., Georgia State University, the Deshpande Foundation and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  According to Goldstein, Americans lack confidence in the nation’s higher education system due to changing demographics, unsustainable business models, and technology.  He remarked that many citizens see these institutions as elitist and disconnected from the communities in which they reside.

Desh Deshpande stated that universities must be impactful and relevant to students and that schools exclude themselves by not being open and inclusive.  There is a need for quality tertiary education and schools need to communicate about the kinds of high quality options available.  Statistics show that attending college and not finishing is financially worse than not attending at all. 

Mary Beth Walker, Associate Provost for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation at Georgia State University (GSU), explained how GSU’s graduation rate increased from 34% to 54% over a period of six years.  GSU’s strategy driven by the President and Provost, offers exceptional support for students of all backgrounds and enrolls one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation.  GSU provides a VP for Student Success and a revamped advisement model that is tailored to the individual student.  They also make micro-grants to students to keep them enrolled.  For example, one student received a grant of a few hundred dollars to complete the registration process. If not for this minimal contribution, the student would have dropped out, significantly reducing his chance of ever graduating.  GSU’s focus on education for everyone is helping students from all backgrounds succeed and graduate in record numbers.

Not all institutions will survive - some may consolidate while others may fade away.  Others still will use entrepreneurship to their advantage – as a method of engaging in different ways to impact society.  Students will choose problems to solve, work on these in unconstrained environments, and discover passion and problem-solving talent that will transform the student/university relationship.