Entrepreneurial Education: A Recent Encounter with Lasting Impact

leadership_riceA few weeks ago, I was reminded why entrepreneurial education, giving back to your community, and especially, generosity towards the next generation, are incredibly important to the future of our society. And that you may never realize the unseen impact that your generosity can have.

A few weeks ago, I had a meeting in Houston with a former student of mine who’d taken an entrepreneurship class from me 12 years ago. He has become a very successful CleanTech executive and recently started his own innovative energy company.

He was doing some fundraising and wanted to show me his investment deck. I can tell you, he has an amazing idea, an analytical mind and a far-reaching vision for the future of energy in the US over the next 10, 20 and 50 years. I deeply hope he succeeds. (I’ll dedicate a future post to his business.)

At the end of our meeting, he laughed and, in one of the most humbling, unexpected and gratifying moments of my career, said, “I never guessed that a random class in entrepreneurship that I took at 19 would end up steering the rest of my life.”

“I never guessed that a random class in entrepreneurship that I took at 19 would end up steering the rest of my life.”

We shook hands and parted, but I remain stunned by his words. When I meet with former students – several of whom have gone on to found successful, impactful companies – I remain awed and humbled.

Let me tell you the background behind this moment: This semester, I’m celebrating the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Entrepreneurial Leadership class at Rice University. And that meeting a few weeks ago served as reminder of why entrepreneurial education is so incredibly important, and why we have to keep doing it.

Having exited my third startup in 2001, I decided the time had come to give back to the community while running my private angel fund. At the time, startups were beginning to become interesting to college students and courses were beginning to emerge, nationally. But there was no undergraduate entrepreneurship education at Rice U., my alma mater. There were a few graduate-level courses in business formation and business plan writing, but nothing that either got students deeply excited about the possibilities of entrepreneurship or that provided a good overview of the process, skills, mindset and lifestyle of the entrepreneur. And we needed that.

I approached the university and was permitted to create “Entrepreneurial Leadership,” a full-credit course in entrepreneurship that was offered as part of the university’s selective leadership program, Leadership Rice.

We used The Portable MBA in Entrepreneurship as a quick overview text and sprinted through topics each week with a mix of exercises and panel discussions featuring local entrepreneurial leaders. I invited friends who were tech entrepreneurs, investment bankers, tech transfer specialists, patent attorneys, inventors, biologists and engineers. We had marketing geniuses, venture capitalists and angel investors regale us with the fantastic tales of their best and worst moments on the journey of building a startup. It was a great community-building exercise, prompted business leaders to visit campus and interact with students, and quickly gained attention.

I invited friends who were tech entrepreneurs, investment bankers, tech transfer specialists, patent attorneys, inventors, biologists and engineers. We had marketing geniuses, venture capitalists and angel investors regale us with the fantastic tales of their best and worst moments on the journey of building a startup.

2016-10-16_172153The semester culminated in assigning the students to small teams to prepare and then present a business plan to a judging panel. The students had to develop a concept, get it approved for presentation, do research, interview potential customers and partners, prepare financials and a marketing plan – and then boil it all down into a stunning slide deck and a few minutes of Q&A. It was a scramble to let every student on every team present, but was much more educational and fun than a final exam.

As you can imagine, by the second year, the class was so popular that I had to restrict it to only Juniors and Seniors. By the third year, the class was running out of room and I was turning students away.

While the class itself was certainly OK and the students loved it, I attribute the popularity of the class to the widespread hunger for real entrepreneurial education, from real entrepreneurs, at a time when it was difficult to find.

I attribute the popularity of the class to the widespread hunger for real entrepreneurial education, from real entrepreneurs, at a time when it was difficult to find.

I was able to teach the class as an adjunct professor for four years before the demands of the startups in my investment fund and a growing family pulled me away. The class has continued and was recently incorporated into the University’s new entrepreneurship umbrella organization.

Going back to my meeting with my former student, my message to you is this: Educating the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders, however you can contribute to that effort, can have a profound impact far beyond what you imagine in the moment of giving. And we have to keep doing it. Through all the ups and downs of the economy, the marketplace and the attitudes of the powerful towards the independent and the independent-minded, we have to keep doing it.

Entrepreneurship is liberating, progressive and prosperity-creating. Whatever happens, don’t give up. Keep going. The world needs you, your ideas and especially your actions.

Remember this: Entrepreneurship is liberating, progressive and prosperity-creating. Whatever happens, don’t give up. Keep going. The world needs you, your ideas and especially your actions. Follow your heart, be generous and dig deep. There’s no telling what great and lasting thing you might help create, without ever knowing what you’ve done.

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This blog is dedicated to providing advice, tools and encouragement from one entrepreneur to another. I want to keep this practical and accessible for the new entrepreneur while also providing enough sophistication and depth to prove useful to the successful serial entrepreneur. My target rests somewhere between the garage and the board room, where the work gets done and the hockey stick emerges.

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