New ‘Introduction to Entrepreneurship’ class links liberal arts with innovation
It was Dec. 4, the last class of the semester, and 300 students in “Introduction to Entrepreneurship” (Econ 125) sat in the auditorium of the Genome Sciences Building listening to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” Both the course and the building were brand new this fall.
Unlike the other musical pieces played at the beginning of each class during the semester, this one was not on the original list that Chancellor Holden Thorp and Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser had chosen.
The last-minute selection was an example of the iterative, experimental – indeed entrepreneurial – approach that Thorp and fellow instructors Buck Goldstein, the University’s entrepreneur in residence, and John Akin, former economics department chair, took in developing the course.
As Thorp noted, the song’s theme of teen rebellion resonated in a course designed to inspire students to knock down the artificial wall that often separates business programs from the liberal arts.
Throughout the semester, Carolina professors from many different fields joined an eclectic group of outside speakers as guest lecturers. They ranged from AOL co-founder Steve Case, to Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, to Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany.
Each one used his or her own experiences and expertise to help tear down the wall brick by brick.
The class reflects a broader effort by administrators to expose more students to the principles of innovation and entrepreneurship.
In 2010, under Thorp’s leadership, UNC launched “Innovate@Carolina: Important Ideas for a Better World,” a roadmap for innovation in science, business, medicine, nonprofits and academia.
Supported by a $125 million fundraising effort, it has since spawned smaller projects such as Carolina Creates, a new student organization focused on fostering connections among students, faculty, staff and members of the Chapel Hill community to enhance the University community as a whole.
Goldstein said the creation of the class was in part a reaction to high demand for spots in UNC’s Minor in Entrepreneurship, which accepts 100 students each year. It has been in existence for six years, and last year there were almost 300 applicants for the 100 spots.
Organizers hope the entrepreneurship course will eventually join traditional heavyweights such as Economics 101 and Psychology 101, large classes that fill quickly year after year. It is also seen as an important step in preparing graduates for an international economy that requires the United States to invest in innovation and entrepreneurship.
It is not only a course on entrepreneurial thinking, it is a course that was created by such thinking, said Lizzy Hazeltine, internship director for the Minor in Entrepreneurship in the economics department.
“The idea behind the course is to show students that entrepreneurship does not come with a user manual,” Hazeltine said. “Instead of telling students to do this, do this and do this, we say, ‘Think about the process, understand the basic requirements for that process, extrapolate forward those things that you need to accomplish that process effectively, and then execute.’”
Because it is open to students who are not majoring in business, the course helps plant the seed of innovation throughout campus so it can grow across disciplines, said Mathilde Verdier, who helped organize the class as program assistant for the Minor in Entrepreneurship.
As part of the class, students teamed together to develop ideas for business start-ups, and the top four projects were recognized during the final class.
Students, through an electronic tabulation, chose RecomPence as the best among the four. The company would allow students to donate a specific amount of money – from a penny to a dollar or more – to a charity of their choice each time they swiped their UNC OneCards.
For some students, the course will lead to enrollment in the Minor in Entrepreneurship, Verdier said. Others will simply be exposed to a way of thinking that could prove useful in whatever course of study they decide to pursue.
Readings for the course were drawn from “Engines of Innovation – the Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century,” which Thorp and Goldstein co-wrote in 2010, along with Peter Drucker’s “Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” Kopp’s “A Chance to Make History” and “Steve Jobs,” a biography of the Apple founder by Walter Isaacson that was published shortly after Jobs’ death last year.
A recurring theme in the course was the indispensable role of a liberal arts education in not only preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist, but also in giving entrepreneurs the intellectual tools they will need to develop ideas for new businesses that will house those jobs.
Econ 125 defined an entrepreneur as someone who identifies an opportunity, gathers the necessary resources, creates a venture and takes on ultimate responsibility for its success. The course also framed an intellectual and historical context for understanding the process of innovation and the different ways entrepreneurship can exist.
For instance, Ken Weiss, an entrepreneur in the entertainment industry who has worked with songwriters from Bob Dylan to Ira Gershwin, talked about artistic entrepreneurship. Kopp and Dennis Whittle, the CEO and co-founder of Global Giving, talked about social entrepreneurship.
Learning from failure
Thorp traced the history of scientific entrepreneurship from Ben Franklin to Jobs, and he shared some of his own experience as a scientific entrepreneur in which success was forged from the lessons of failure.
His first company, Xanthon, had a novel technology for directing DNA and RNA on microelectronic devices, and in the six years it existed, from 1996 to 2002, it had as many as 62 employees.
In the exuberance of the venture capital bubble of 1999–2000, however, many other companies emerged with similar technologies. When that bubble burst in 2001, a few large companies consumed the intellectual properties of these small companies.
The lesson Thorp learned from the experience was one he said was best explained by the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead: “You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”
Thorp applied that lesson when he had the chance to start a second company in 2004.
Called Viamet, the company is based on two simple facts. The first is that 30 percent of all enzymes in the human body are inorganic metalloenzymes – enzymes with metallic elements ranging from iron to zinc. The second is that nearly all the chemists employed by big pharmaceutical companies are organic chemists. Because of that, Thorp recognized an opportunity for Viamet to become the sole company in metalloenzyme pharma with a large market opportunity to generate patentable, best-in-class drug inhibitors to address unmet medical needs.
Failure as an indispensable learning tool was a recurring theme throughout the course.
Akin told students that entrepreneurs look for opportunities, take risks and often fail. That’s because markets allow anyone to try anything, but markets also allow anyone to fail. To succeed, entrepreneurs have to generate profit by offering something new, or better or at a lower cost than is already available.
When he was the guest lecturer, history professor Lloyd Kramer discussed failure in all its manifest forms throughout history – from the imperial overreach of Athenian General Thucydides during the Peloponnesian War to the defeat of Napoleon’s French empire in the early 19th century to the creative use of adversity by people like Henry David Thoreau.
In their joint lecture near the end of the semester, Thorp and Goldstein said entrepreneurs do not so much embody a discipline or a course of study but a way of thinking that is very much like a liberal arts education. They are inquisitive, they are lifelong learners, and within reason, they are risk takers not afraid to fail.
Not only is entrepreneurship essential to increasing the impact of institutions of higher education, it is a way of thinking that is consistent with the values of these institutions, they said.
At the end of the final class, Goldstein told the students they would have “a special place in his heart” for the role they played in helping to launch a groundbreaking course that would be offered – no doubt in new and better ways – to many more students in the coming years.
Also speaking at the final class were Moeser, who had prepared videos about the classical pieces he had chosen for the course, and Ted Zoller, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies who developed the “Launching the Venture” course more than a decade ago.
Both offered words of advice.
“As you go through this wonderful experience being a UNC student, each one of you should be in the process of formulating your own personal board of directors – people who you put around you who you can count on for advice, for guidance and for mentorship,” Moeser said. “Take these people with you wherever you go for the rest of your life and they will help you.”
Zoller urged the students to think about the significance of the course.
“Just pause for a moment and reflect on how privileged you have been to be in this class and to have had the opportunity to have met the people you have met,” he said. “I’m guessing that this class has infected you with a little bit of a germ that will continue to make its way through your system and will manifest itself in what you do for the rest of your life.”
If “Introduction to Entrepreneurship” was a bold experiment for its many instructors and students, so too was "Production and Practice" (Comm 539). Francesca Talenti, professor of communication studies, who developed and taught the course, said it had two broad purposes. The first was for students to develop technical and artistic skill as filmmakers by shooting and editing most of the lectures in Econ 125. The second called upon students to research the emerging realm of online education in order to produce a set of recommendations for UNC online. The results of their efforts can be seen at youtube.com/uncchapelhill; click ‘Econ 125’ in ‘Featured Playlists.’