Today's Reading

Brown was not a hotbed of students looking to succeed in business. To be sure, some graduates ended up in business careers, and in those days that typically meant working as consultants or investment bankers. Although very few of my peers pursued the startup world, what attracted me to it in the very early days of the tech boom was an opportunity to team up with a few other Brown students on a software venture called Clearview. I was drawn to the romance of being our own boss, as well as to the lure of a lifestyle that stories of Silicon Valley had begun to popularize on campus. The "create your own rules" counterculture reminded me of the Brown ethos I was experiencing as a student. We eventually sold Clearview to Apple.

Although then I did not envision a structured process of entrepreneurship, in retrospect I see some of the early influences on the process that later became the basis of my teaching. I liked the idea of solving a problem that held people back. Based on my partner Matt Kursh's observations in his father's medical office, we set out to automate mundane but important office- management tasks. I am sure we did not call it Bottom-Up Research then as I would decades later, but in some ways we were anthropological, as we observed and listened to detect a strong need for automating the design and management of forms that were the front end of data collection in any office. We iterated (again, not knowing that years later that concept would be so central to this process), and we focused our Value Proposition on solving that strong and enduring unmet need. We provided a software system that empowered office workers to create their own beautiful forms on the newly launched Macintosh and then collect and manage data on electronic form equivalents.

I got a rush out of seeing our products in use in all sorts of offices and hearing customers rave about the efficiency impact they were driving. I had never known that something as mundane as office forms could be so exciting. At that point, in the mid-1980s, I didn't know that entrepreneurship offered an exciting kind of work experience and life. I only knew that I liked it.

Throughout the rest of my career, in several other startups across a wide range of industries, I built on that first entrepreneurship experience. I was never the domain expert in any of them: not the tech-savvy programmer, not the food scientist, not the journalist. Instead, I was focused on the business side of the company, and with each startup, I gained more experience in this structured Entrepreneurial Process. Later, when I circled back to teach at Brown, I was able to see how elements of my own experience could inform a process that I could teach.

* * *

Fast-forward sixteen years. In 2005, I got a phone call out of the blue from Barrett Hazeltine, a legendary Brown engineering professor whose courses were among the most popular in the entire university. The engineering department was looking to formalize the teaching of entrepreneurship, he told me, and it was looking for a successful entrepreneur with a range of business experience. He liked that I had entrepreneurship experience, had studied at Harvard Business School, and that I had also worked at an established company like Procter & Gamble. Would I be interested in returning to Brown to teach?

I had never taught anything. And what the heck did he mean by "teach entrepreneurship"? Was that even possible? To develop our products, my Clearview partners drew on their Brown computer science training and their obsession with Macintosh software, but to grow the business, we had relied on our best judgment and on raw liberal arts skills. Further, Brown still had no business school. In the university's liberal arts environment, I would encounter students without even basic business training. Barrett explained that the university was responding to the fact that increasing numbers of Brown students were being drawn to the growing popularity of internet startups. It was looking for someone who could meet the needs of Brown students in ways that would integrate the teaching of entrepreneurship into its liberal artsbased curriculum. I'm not sure everyone in Brown's leadership knew exactly what entrepreneurship was or how it would fit. Still, I liked the sound of what Barrett described. This was an opportunity to return to Brown and teach what I had experienced in my career in the same liberal arts environment I had so valued as a student.

I soon found that I had overestimated my Brown students' familiarity with business fundamentals. Partway through my first semester teaching, when I asked my students to evaluate the financial status of a company depicted in a case study, a student named Scott Norton sheepishly raised his hand to ask "what's an asset?" Of course there's no reason why a college student would know a given business term, and I realized that if Scott—one of my best students (and someone who would later build a wildly successful company)—did not know what an asset was, then neither he nor any of his fellow students had any clue about accounting basics or about how to "keep score" in business. It felt like teaching advanced music composition to students who couldn't read music.

It was then that something important dawned on me. The point of a liberal arts curriculum, as the former president of Harvard, Derek Bok, had put it, was, "to create a web of knowledge that will illumine problems and enlighten judgment on innumerable occasions in later life." It was about critical thinking and problem-solving skills 'unrelated to a specific body of knowledge'. Studying European intellectual history had taught me how to formulate important questions, to think critically, to seek and evaluate evidence from primary texts, to use research to develop rational answers, and to communicate persuasive arguments on paper and in a presentation—all fundamental skills that had been essential throughout my career, particularly in my startup roles.

This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book CONVERSATIONS WORTH HAVING by Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres.
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