Universities should prepare students for the unknown unknowns
EIA entrepreneurship programs are designed for students all over the world who are interested in getting a hands-on experience about how an idea becomes a real business. We work with more than 300 universities all over the world and meet inspiring people along the way. The author of this article, Dr. Garret Westlake, the executive director of the da Vinci Center for Innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University, is inspired by underdogs, outcasts, and misfits and the ideas and perspectives they bring to the table. “In the comic X-MEN, those who are different are seen as mutants. I believe that mutants are in fact superheros,” says the executive director of the da Vinci Center for Innovation at VCU, one of the most diverse public research universities in the world.*
Too many universities silo their innovation and entrepreneurship resources within one school or college. When they do serve the whole institution it is typically devoid of any academic offerings. The value of a university is not it’s ability to house knowledge, but to facilitate learning and provide context across disciplines.
The idea that universities are comprised of faculty who hold knowledge is antiquated, and those that cling to this historical view of the academy will be left behind. Universities need to first acknowledge that they are preparing students for careers and jobs that don’t even exist yet.
Therefore the curriculum and structure of programs cannot be dependent on known content, but should be preparing for the unknown unknowns. This means preparing students to be problem solvers, to know how to find and use information, and how to create new tools to solve problems.
The academic shift that needs to happen is a move from memorizing information and providing the right answer when asked, to a rich environment that encourages creativity, problem solving, and facilitates dialogue. How can a university leverage the intellectual and physical resources at its disposal to solve the world’s problems? That is the question that universities should be asking and there is no right answer to that question so it will absolutely involve failure.
Finding inspiration from the unknown
My academic lense is as a cognitive scientist. I am fascinated with how we learn and make decisions. If you think of our brains as a complex series of connections and that learning is a growing complexity and density of those connections, then every new experience informs your ability to contextualize what you are learning and draw new insights and inferences. One of the greatest tools an entrepreneur has is the ability to learn new information and find inspiration from the previously unknown. EIA and the ability to live in a new city, with people from different cultures, is a bootcamp for creativity and new neural connections that can’t be recreated in any other context.
In EIA entrepreneurship programs students travel to foreign country for 2 or 3 weeks for an intensive entrepreneurship course that takes them through a process that a real entrepreneur goes through adding the experience of living in a new country and working together with 5 team members from different cultures and different disciplines.*
At VCU we use a couple strategies to encourage a wide range of majors to participate in our offerings:
- Our spaces are college and school agnostic so our center isn’t located in a business school. Our physical spaces are common spaces available to everyone – like the library.
- We go to where people are. We speak in classes across the campus and befriend the dentistry and pharmacy professors so they see that we are inclusive.
- We also leverage faculty fellows. Our faculty fellows are innovators themselves and champion our center within their disciplines in ways that those outside of certain schools and majors can’t be successful.
Anyone can be an innovator
As an entrepreneur I launched a technology company that employed individuals with autism. I witnessed an amazing transformation as the individuals that worked for our company saw themselves not as individuals with autism, but as technology employees and this shift in identity had a significant impact on their lives.
We see the same thing in the da Vinci Center where there are assumptions about who is an innovator and entrepreneur that are too often tied to majors. One of our exceptional Master of Product Innovation students majored in homeland security before entering our program. The challenge is less in getting people to work together and more in overcoming issues of identity. One way we do this at the da Vinci Center is by celebrating that our center is a majority minority center with most of our students being women and students of color. This challenges many of the historical ideas about who participates in innovation and entrepreneurship.
Diverse teams are more innovative and productive
We should be seeking every opportunity to build diversity into our innovation and entrepreneurship culture in order to maximize results. This is a case where in addition to being the “right thing to do” it has a clear business case as well. History is clear that just because it is right does not mean it happens so to make this happen will take champions and people to continue to push for greater diversity. I believe that these issues are particularly important for those who have privilege to be aware of and work to address.
How entrepreneurs and kayakers are the same
As a whitewater kayaker one minute you are enjoying paddling a river with friends, and then then next minute you are upside down fighting with currents you didn’t know exist and wondering if you should bail, if a friend will come to your rescue, or if you will die.
I think that is exactly what entrepreneurship is all about. It’s a wild ride and one that pushes you to your limits and tests your confidence in your own skills and abilities. You are rewarded in both for fighting through adversity and there is nothing that feels better than when you come out on top and then think how fun that was. Then you do it again.
About the author Dr. Garret Westlake
- Garret is an entrepreneur and educator committed to real world learning outcomes and access and inclusion in innovation and entrepreneurship. As the founder and CEO of STEM Force Technology, Dr. Westlake led and exited a social venture that created employment opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum in STEM careers.
- As the executive director of the da Vinci Center for Innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University, he is leading the transformation of VCU into one of the nation’s leading universities for cross-disciplinary collaboration, real world entrepreneurial experiences, and economic development through the activation of public research universities as innovation hubs.
- Prior to joining VCU, Dr. Westlake served as an associate dean for Arizona State University’s #1 ranked Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and faculty associate in the College of Technology and Innovation. He has worked closely with Ashoka U, the Clinton Global Initiative University, and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. Students and startups he has mentored have been named to Forbes 30 Under 30 for Healthcare Innovation, accepted to Techstars, Y Combinator, SXSW, and awarded Rhodes Scholarships and named Resolution Project Fellows. Dr. Westlake is active in his community serving on a number of boards and in advisory roles to startups, k-12 schools, and programs that serve individuals with disabilities and promote innovation and entrepreneurship.
- INSPIRATION: Garret has found a lot of inspiration from Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh and the podcast How I built this. Both are great for any aspiring entrepreneur.
About The da Vinci Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
VCU is committed to academic and experiential programs for all students. The ability to build cross-disciplinary partnerships and teams is one of the core strengths of the da Vinci Center. The da Vinci Center is unique in that it offers academic opportunities, such as our Master of Product Innovation degree which encompasses EIA, and facilitates the university’s pre-accelerator program for all students.
- One of the most diverse public research universities in the world, and is committed to the social good
With a commitment to research, clinical care, and promoting a social ladder for the more than 31,000 students that it serves
- A unique institution and one that I believe is the future of higher education. VCU is a true catalyst for innovation and the social good
- VCU students always travel with their mascot “Little Leonardo”. Little Leo has been three countries and EIA in Portugal will be his fourth! Right now he’s looking over my shoulder as I write this anxious for his next adventure just like all of us at the da Vinci Center
About the EIA entrepreneurship programs
- 5-member teams of different disciplines form teams and build a startup in 15 days during summer with the guidance of experienced mentors and speakers
- The program takes students through the real-life process of building a startup from concept to launch and gives the know-how to make it happen
- Students from diverse disciplines – developers, designers, marketers, – form five person teams to build a startup together
- More information about the EIA programs
*Remarks by European Innovation Academy