A March article in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s online edition highlights the value of hands-on entrepreneurial learning cultivated at campus innovation centers, including the Bozzuto Center for Entrepreneurship at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
In the article — “Colleges Have Big Money to Spend on Innovation Centers. Do They Work?” — Professor of Economics Thomas Drennen, who chairs the entrepreneurial studies program, says that the success of the HWS program depends on the intersection of students’ interests and the needs of local businesses and non-profits. In the interview, he explains that through the program students develop the ability to identify problems and then have the confidence and skills they need to solve them in their future ventures and careers.
“We want to say, ‘students, what ideas do you have?’” Drennen told the Chronicle. “Some of the steps are in identifying community problems and offering solutions, and who knows where they’ll go?”
The article also profiles Alexandria Burns ’18 and her work in the Geneva community, made possible through the Bozzuto Center and the entrepreneurial studies program. Burns is developing a social media strategy for a Geneva small business — an “arrangement that benefits both parties,” the article explains, as “Burns gets real-world experience, and the owner gets help from an innovative student.”
The Bozzuto Center is named in honor of Chair of the Board of Trustees Thomas S. ’68 and Barbara M. Bozzuto, who recently gave $4 million to the Colleges, $3 million of which will support critical programming and operations of the space. The Center hosts related academic and co-curricular programming like the Centennial Center’s Idea Lab, Innovation Academy and Stu Lieblein ’90 Pitch Contest competition, and houses office space for the Colleges’ Margiloff Family Entrepreneurial Fellow, who helps develop academic programming and collaborates across campus and with external stakeholders and entrepreneurs.
In 2018, Empire State Development awarded the Colleges a $250,000 grant to support renovations at the Bozzuto Center.
Colleges Have Spent Big Money on Innovation Centers. Do they Work?
By Julian Wyllie
When Erin Kutch enrolled at Iona College, she hoped that its location, near New York City, would provide internship and job opportunities to jump-start her career in media and communications. What she didn’t predict was that a multimillion-dollar innovation center there would change her perspective on business, give her confidence, and help her become more creative.
It was in Iona’s Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, an interdisciplinary center founded last year with a $15-million gift, that Kutch, a fourth year mass communications major, took a 300-level entrepreneurship course. And that class, she says, has “transformed” her way of thinking.
“If you asked me before I took the class, ‘how do you teach someone to be an entrepreneur?’ I would’ve thought that you can’t,” she said. “But being in this class I now think that it can be taught, and it can be taught in different ways.”
Realizations like Kutch’s are a big reason that many universities have raised big sums of money — sometimes in the tens of millions — to start ambitious interdisciplinary innovation centers. Carnegie Mellon, Brown, and Iowa State Universities, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and the Universities of Connecticut and North Carolina at Chapel Hill are among the institutions that have also established or announced plans for innovation centers that they hope will attract nonbusiness students to the entrepreneurial world.
The idea that colleges can be hubs to develop new businesses is inspired by stories of research institutions that have sparked renaissances in their regions. Think Stanford University and Silicon Valley, or Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and their effect on Cambridge and Route 128, the Technology Corridor. Colleges, with their supply of ambitious risk-taking students, would seem like natural sites for entrepreneurial energy. But are innovation centers the best way to accomplish that?
Yes and no, says Matthew J. Mayhew, a professor of educational administration at Ohio State University. He says that the term “innovation” is being tossed all over the place, but it used to refer only to particular industries.
“Innovation has morphed out of its cage from technology,” he says. He adds that colleges have seized the opportunity to play off the trend: “Now it’s like this sexy term that everybody uses.”
But it’s difficult to measure a center’s success, he says. His most recent studies suggest that if an institution focuses too closely on the number of start-ups or patents that are established by a center, the college might miss the impact of what an innovation center can do for students who don’t want to be business owners immediately after college.
Tally of Start-Ups
But many colleges still count the technological, rather than the personal, results. Carnegie Mellon, for example, has kept a running tally of start-ups generated at the university since the late 1990s, when it began offering entrepreneurship programs. In 2015, it opened the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship with a $31-million gift. Lenore Blum, a faculty co-director of the center, says that the trajectory of start-ups at the college has increased.
In 2000, Carnegie Mellon saw fewer than five start-ups each year. By 2016, the number was nearly 40. Between 2008 and 2016, about 250 companies have been started through the university, and Blum cites evidence that more will be on the way through the center’s Project Olympus incubator program.
But not all of the start-ups at Carnegie Mellon have been fully student run. The bulk of projects involved the faculty and staff, according to a 2017 report, and the college of engineering, the business school, and the school of computer science were heavily represented.
The tendency for only certain disciplines to participate in these entrepreneurship centers is something that troubles Benjamin S. Selznick, an assistant professor of postsecondary analysis and leadership at James Madison University, who is Mayhew’s research partner. Innovation centers work best, said Selznick, when they serve the widest possible audience.
“If these places become completely spaces for STEM majors or computer-science folks, then they might start to become spaces that are predominantly male, and perhaps predominantly white male,” he said. “Innovation capacities can be developed by all, no matter your major or background.”
It’s a challenge that Blum, of Carnegie Mellon, is familiar with, and it’s why the Swartz Center is trying to find ways to make innovation and entrepreneurship more appealing to a broader range of students. Computer science is an example of the disconnect. “Half of our new majors are female,” she said, “but that hasn’t totally extended into the entrepreneurial world.”
A Better Gauge
One way that the researchers say colleges can more accurately measure the impact of innovation centers — and extend their reach — is to expand the idea of what they accomplish.
For example, said Mayhew, universities should track whether these centers encourage students to participate in other activities on campus, like protests. Many of the skills that make someone innovative are broadly applicable to other fields.
“The central idea is still the same,” he said. “Students can actually learn the steps in how to take an idea and roll it out to execution. And those steps aren’t necessarily just about developing a strategic business plan.”
Being entrepreneurial, like organizing a protest, he said, requires someone to effectively communicate ideas, think creatively on the spot, and understand all aspects of a proposal.
“And most importantly,” he said, “it’s about understanding and learning what you don’t know and teaming with other students who might know the answer to your questions.” Innovation centers might also be valuable for something else that is difficult to gauge: bringing together students from different disciplines. Judi K. Eyles, director of the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship at Iowa State, says entrepreneurship programs in general often lack visible spaces for nonbusiness and business majors to get together. Iowa State’s new building for the center, projected to open in 2020, is expected to fix that.
“It’s meant to be a student space, not a bunch of faculty offices and a bunch of program offices where they’ll do some experiential learning,” she says. “You hate to say it, but if you build it, they will come.”
Centers can also be sites that help students connect with local businesses. That’s the hope for a forthcoming center at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. To some extent, these connections are happening already. Students there have been working with small businesses in Geneva, a city in Upstate New York with a population of less than 14,000.
Alexandria Burns, a senior majoring in media and society, says she didn’t come to Hobart and William Smith for entrepreneurial studies. The liberal-arts college has no business school, but it does have an economics department. She got into the entrepreneurship program because she wanted to be a more confident public speaker. She also says it’s important for women to insert themselves into the business world.
Burns has been working on a project where groups of students work with local businesses — hers involves building a social media presence for The Market, a local deli. The arrangement benefits both parties: Burns gets real-world experience, and the owner gets help from an innovative student.
An entrepreneurship center, the Bozzuto Center, is being built in downtown Geneva, thanks to a $4-million gift, says Tom E. Drennen, a professor of economics who specializes in entrepreneurial studies. He says a successful program gets students involved in local nonprofits, small businesses, and interested in their own ventures.
“We want to say, ‘students, what ideas do you have?’” he says. “Some of the steps are in identifying community problems and offering solutions, and who knows where they’ll go?”
Ultimately, however, helping students become entrepreneurial thinkers might not even require a special center dedicated to that purpose. It might be a matter of creative teaching, say both Mayhew and Selznick.
Take Erin Kutch at Iona. She says that one of the lessons that has stuck with her the most was an in-class assignment in which students partnered up and built, of all things, a wallet.
“It was so funny,” she said. “We had all these art supplies and all this crazy stuff. We were like ‘what the heck, I’m a college senior. What am I doing?’”
Her professor, Christoph Winkler, the founding director of the Hynes institute, led a discussion about how the wallet symbolized different things that people care for and carry with them, like photos, or bank and membership cards. As students got deeper into the project, Kutch said, they learned that the point was never really to make the wallet, but to realize that each consumer is unique.
“By the end of the exercise, most people didn’t even create a wallet,” she said. “Most people were building all these other things that a person really needs.”
And how has she applied this lesson? Working for MSNBC in Manhattan this semester, she helped create media packages and researched stories about school shootings. The wallet exercise helped her think about the perspective and needs of viewers and readers.
A lot of the viewers’ tweets ask “why certain stories are reported on or not, and show what a lot of people are actually interested in,” she said. “I took at that as a way of thinking about empathy and not just saying ‘Oh, I want to report the news,’ but also thinking about what stories people want to hear and how they’re portrayed.”