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Survey Courses

Recap of Webinar 4 by Michal Gilon-Yanai

· Nucleation,Career Choice,Entrepreneurial mind

This session on entrepreneurship “Survey courses” wraps up the discussion of the knowledge, skills and tools that can help students successfully complete the “Nucleation” stage of the entrepreneurial process.

Having discussed ideation and team building (and taken a temporary step away from the “Tile framework” to discuss program assessment), the last remaining tile under nucleation was “career choice”. This tile represents introduction courses about entrepreneurship that are often taught before experiential project-based courses and are designed to give students a general idea about the career of an entrepreneur. These courses typically provide an overview of the stages in the development of a new venture, and use case studies and guest speakers to provide a glimpse into the life of an entrepreneur.

Our first speaker was Prof. Stewart Thornhill from the University of Michigan, who presented a graduate level elective course that he teaches to a mixed audience of students from the MBA, public health, engineering, and arts & sciences programs. The main questions broadly discussed in the course are “what is entrepreneurship”, “what is an entrepreneur”, and “what does it mean to be entrepreneurial”. For example, Stewart discusses the common attributes of entrepreneurs and how they relate to what an entrepreneur must do to succeed. He also uses several frameworks to discuss the cyclical, iterative nature of the entrepreneurial process, and the interactions between risk/uncertainty levels and venture value, and how these change over time.

The course is structured along high level stages, beginning with entrepreneurial thinking and ideation, through opportunity assessment, business plans, entrepreneurial finance and finally funding and exit strategies. Finally, Stewart touches upon purpose – a key motivator that comes in many forms – a problem that must be solved, or “a version of themselves” that entrepreneurs wish to become. Throughout the course, Stewart uses case studies to demonstrate real life scenarios and decision points that entrepreneurs face during their journeys. Among the cases that he recommends are “Krave’s Candy Co. – Clodhoppers”, “LumiSmart (A): Answering the Call for Negawatts”, and “SawStop”.

Our second speaker, Shikhar Ghosh from HBS, teaches a required first year course in the MBA program called “The Entrepreneurial Manager”. The objective of the course is to integrate what students have learned in the discipline focused courses (Marketing, Strategy, Finance etc.) in a challenging context (limited resources and a high level of uncertainty), “where failure is the norm”.  It is not assumed that all, or even most students taking the course will choose to start their own ventures. Rather, the goal is to develop an entrepreneurial mindset regardless of the students’ chosen career paths. The rationale is that such a mindset – which embraces risk taking and decision making in conditions of uncertainty will be helpful in any business context.

The course is centered around the business model – evaluating it, financing it, operating and improving it, and collaborating with other players. The teaching team uses a combination of cases (among them “Rent the runway”, “Zipcar” and many more), teaching notes that provide the theoretical foundation that prepares students for case discussions, and exercises designed to practice specific skills. Some of the main points that Shikhar aims to make during the course are that a) People, not companies make decisions, and individuals are therefore critically important. b) Cash is critical, c) Uncertainty and risk are inherent in real world situations, and d) Analysis and action are not the same, and being an entrepreneurial manager means, above all, making decisions and acting on them – without perfect information, and while taking on significant risk.

There is a significant focus in the course on individual entrepreneurs and their experiences – the instructors bring the protagonists of discussed cases to 45% of the sessions, and an additional 25% of classes feature videos of protagonists discussing the case.  While this is usually the most popular part of class among the students, faculty constantly tries to strike a balance between adding value to the learning experience and pure entertainment. Therefore, out of 90-minute long classes, guests are only given 10-20 minutes to present. The rest of the time is spent discussing the case in class with the guidance of professors. Most importantly, students are always required to adopt a stance. It’s never enough to analyze the situation and present different alternatives and the tradeoffs between them. An entrepreneurial manager must always then make a decision, back it up with as much data as possible and lay out concrete action steps to be taken. Students are asked to do the same.

Following our two guest speakers, Bill Aulet presented the approach to survey courses at MIT. He began by providing some general context on how these courses fit into the general programming framework, and who, among the different student personas they are best designed to serve. Typically, these are the “curious” entrepreneurs. This persona is, by definition, in an “unsteady” state and for these students, an introduction class is particularly important. Following such a class, a student may decide to dive in and take a more experiential course in which they actually “do” entrepreneurship, or may decide that entrepreneurship is not for them. As an educational institution, this is also a welcome outcome.

Bill stressed that the different tiles under “nucleation” in the programming framework are not really discrete as they may appear – often, for example, ideation is an excellent method for building the right team and for experiencing a part of the entrepreneurial process which leads to a deeper understanding of it overall. According to him, the goal of a survey class is to provide a good introduction to entrepreneurship. Key topics may include the definitions and different types of entrepreneurship, a bit of its history and its role in society, what makes entrepreneurs successful, key current concepts, etc. As part of the overall entrepreneurship offerings at MIT, survey courses are just one part of the MIT entrepreneurship “ramp” which starts with introduction events such as Hackathons, and continues through these survey classes, then project classes, extracurricular talks, activities and finally an accelerator program for select, highly committed teams.

There are currently three main introduction classes taught at MIT. One is “Founder’s Journey” taught by Christina Chase – a course mainly for undergrad students, which serves as an entry point to entrepreneurship. The course presents key concepts, and includes an impressive list of guest speakers, both faculty and practitioners. A second course is the “Entrepreneurship & Innovation Track Seminar”, taught by Prof. Ed Roberts. This is a first semester course for MBA students in the E&I Track. It includes a speaker series and panel discussions, and is designed to expose students to key ideas, resources and people in the ecosystem. Finally, there is a class for engineering students called “Foundations of Principled Entrepreneurship for Engineers”, which is taught by Prof. Bernhardt Trout. The course reviews the history of entrepreneurship and its impact on the world, through a series of case studies focused on engineer-entrepreneurs.

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