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Putting innovation education over entrepreneurship broadens impact

Posted by on Monday, April 30, 2018 in Roberts Blog.

Executive Director Spotlight

Putting innovation education over entrepreneurship broadens impact

In this blog and at the Wond’ry, we talk a lot about entrepreneurship. In principle, we take an educational approach that includes entrepreneurship but goes far beyond readying students to launch their own businesses.

The model we use is innovation education. University students simply may not be at a point in their lives where starting their own business makes sense. Only 5 percent of the American population considers themselves entrepreneurs, and taking that path is especially difficult for young people who are attempting to finish a formal education and probably lack the time, experience and financial and other resources to make a go of their own business.

The university years are a time to explore majors, goals and relationships, and seasons of great personal transition aren’t the best for starting an all-consuming enterprise.

At the same time, Vanderbilt University and others serve millennials, a generation very passionate about connecting to a cause for the greater good, completing meaningful work and knowing that they are being heard and recognized.

So instead of forcing them to pursue something for which they aren’t ready, why not focus on teaching them the skillset to be successful thinkers, problem solvers and empathetic analyzers and then provide the opportunity to further develop these skills?

In other words, let’s train university students to be innovative and entrepreneurial leaders, which can then be applied to all forms of entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship and problem solving. If you focus solely on entrepreneurship, you are ignoring the majority of the innovation spectrum by just focusing on the tail end of commercialization. You are ignoring creativity, invention, research and development. In doing so, you are severely limiting your focus to products, industries and ideas that are close to market ready.

There will always be the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, and we should be there to assist them, but they shouldn’t be our sole focus. Universities shouldn’t be the place to decide who might be a successful entrepreneur. We must provide everyone ample opportunity to learn and build entrepreneurial skills.

By focusing on innovation education, you don’t need to have a startup idea for someone to feel comfortable in coming to your innovation center. You thus open up to people who have a variety of innovative and creative ideas and perhaps want to develop solutions that improve the world but don’t necessarily have the goal of generating revenue. You will attract students from a wider array of academic disciplines and create the opportunity to show them how innovation impacts their areas of interest and expertise.

One downside of focusing on innovation is that it is much more difficult to define success and impact. Measurable factors that often drive entrepreneurship center success metrics aren’t as applicable – how many jobs created, how many companies formed, economic impact and the like.

At the Wond’ry, we have created metrics that are both quantitative – such as utilization of space – and qualitative – such as stories about transinstitutional partnerships that may never have happened without a collaborative, supportive space.

Likewise, we also measure our impact by external rankings, grants and accolades received either by the center or the individuals running it.

By following the above model, we’ve essentially become a design-thinking hub where all are welcome, and that’s what we set out to do.


Robert Grajewski
Evans Family Executive Director