Written by Shannon Palka, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-2015
As you can read about on this blog, my CSU STEM VISTA colleagues are helping provide opportunities to STEM students across the nation’s largest four-year public university system. They’re working to provide research opportunities, internships, mentoring, career prep, etc., and they’re all doing amazing things.
My program has a slightly different flavor than the other projects you’ll read about here, because of its distinct business and entrepreneurship emphasis. I am working with student and faculty researchers to implement a program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) called Innovation Corps (or I-Corps). In essence, I-Corps is an immersive, interdisciplinary experience that trains nascent academic entrepreneurs and curious researchers about how to bring their discoveries from the lab to the market. The emphasis is learning rather than commercial success, which is pretty unique as far as entrepreneurship programs go. STEM students learn business skills and networking and develop interpersonally in a low-risk environment, adding another dimension to their undergraduate training and preparing them for life after graduation, no matter what field they intend to enter.
Now, my undergraduate degree was in English and my professional experience is in community building. I never took a business class, and I was never tempted to. I assumed they would be about laws and regulations, how to make a spread sheet, and other topics I just do not find interesting. Maybe that assumption is right. Like I said, I never took a class.
In planning and promoting the new I-Corps program for CSU students across all 23 campuses, I had to learn about effective entrepreneurship so I could explain the benefits of I-Corps to researchers with as much business training as I have. So, I went through rapid commercialization training, similar to what we’re providing I-Corps participants. My learning curve was a sharp right angle. It was a baptism by fire, of sorts. What I learned surprised me.
Entrepreneurship isn’t about making money – at least not intrinsically. It’s about solving problems. Step One of a successful venture is finding the biggest, baddest problems that plague people relentlessly. These are “migraine problems,” as Diana Kander dubbed them in All In Startup, because they’re the ones you would do anything to get rid of. Step Two is finding a successful, practical remedy to that problem. It’s about crafting solutions. There’s just as much experimenting and discovery in entrepreneurship as there is in a traditional chemistry lab.
Step Three is the kicker, and, if done right, it should color steps One and Two. Step Three is wasting no time or money in the process.
I’ve been immersed in entrepreneurship theory, and I’ve learned there’s no shame in abandoning an idea that won’t work, or that just isn’t the best. We make assumptions about good ways to fix a problem, and – since we’re human – those assumptions are often flawed. Maybe we don’t fully understand the problem. Maybe we’re making assumptions about the needs of everyone who will be affected, or about the broader context we’re working in.
It’s not because we’re stupid. It’s because we’re human. The scope of our knowledge and understanding can fundamentally not encompass everything we’d like to know, or even everything we perhaps should know.
So, rather than throwing away good money after bad trying to make an imperfect solution work, successful entrepreneurs strive to find any potential flaws early, fix them and change course, or abandon the idea and begin again in a new direction.
This is the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s actively searching for the good and the bad in a plan. It’s identifying the unknown through research and persistence and adapting to the unexpected accordingly. It’s cutting your losses before you’ve bankrupted your time and resources. It’s learning; it’s creating; and it goes hand in hand with STEM.