How To Foster Faculty Entrepreneurship

I just led a four-day intensive workshop for university professors, here at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. We grouped professors in teams, and guided them through the entrepreneurship process in just four days! It’s so intense that it’s known as the “boot camp.”

The workshop was created in 2009, by Professor Holden Thorp. At that time he led the university as the Chancellor, so he was in a position to make something happen. The workshop was inspired by research Thorp did for his 2010 book Engines of Innovation. His research showed that universities drive economic growth; they’re hotbeds of new ideas and research. But the research also showed that the full potential of university research wasn’t being realized, because so many researchers don’t know how to develop their ideas into real businesses.

  • They don’t know how to think about customer needs, or about how to create value for customers.
  • They don’t know how to think about strategy, competition, and market advantage.
  • They don’t know how to leverage partnerships, or to develop new relationships with non-academics who have important skills they’ll need to be successful.

In short, university professors don’t know how to think like entrepreneurs. And that’s where our workshop comes in: to help professors develop the entrepreneurial mindset. We’re blessed to have the strong support and commitment of Chancellor Carol Folt, and that’s why the workshop was officially called “The Chancellor’s Faculty Entrepreneurship Boot Camp.”

We organized the workshop around six key skills associated with successful entrepreneurs:

  • Innovate: How to generate good new ideas and identify promising challenges and problems
  • Listen: How to understand customers and how they perceive value
  • Plan: How to think strategically, to spot unique opportunities and potential competition and challenges
  • Clarify: How to think in detail about the value being created for customers, and how to communicate that quickly in a pitch
  • Support: How to develop networks and relationships to move your idea along
  • Iterate: Using the lean process, with frequent pivots and zigzags, to build your business

We had participants from 14 of the 17 UNC system campuses, a full range of institutional types: art schools, engineering schools, medical schools, HBCUs. We even had a participant from the system’s residential high school for high-talent science and math students.

The average participant evaluation was 4.8 out of 5.0, so we know the participating faculty got a lot out of the workshop. And, it proves that our core lessons apply not just to flagship research universities, like UNC Chapel Hill, but to all higher education. Next year, I think we’re ready to open this up to universities around the country. What do you think?

5 thoughts on “How To Foster Faculty Entrepreneurship

  1. Dr. Sawyer, Your words and work are very inspiring, and I think this workshop is a wonderful idea. I teach leadership and creativity courses at North Central College and DePaul University, and applaud your research and work. If you would like assistance with any of these endeavors, please let me know. I would love to help out. Best, Renee KosiarekInstructor, North Central College & DePaul University

    Date: Tue, 26 May 2015 20:28:53 +0000 To:

  2. Regarding students, I absolutely agree. Here at Carolina we have an undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship and it’s been hugely popular. Many other campuses have similar initiatives under way, but I think we’re in the top ten nationally, when you add everything we’re doing across campus together.

  3. Hi Keith
    This is phenomenal.
    I have been trying to get university academics interested in entrepreneurship for a while.
    The narrow definitions of small business have really harmed the cause of entrepreneurship champions at universities..
    We are however making some progress here in South Africa.

    I use your book ZigZag in a postgraduate diploma course in Creativity and Innovation, a module in the Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship. I do believe it is more about mindset than about skills set.

    1. It’s so exciting that you’re using my book ZIG ZAG! I’ve just designed a creativity card deck based on the book. Information about it (and how to order) will be on the book’s web site very soon.

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