I was invited recently to give a talk about entrepreneurship to 75 seniors in the electrical engineering department at San Diego State University. Their professor is Barry Dorr, a classic “give-back” guy, who did 35 years in the industry and is now full-time and all in on sharing and teaching electrical engineering. This guy lights up a room.
Personally, I wouldn’t know a printed circuit board from a chessboard. But I visited the lab where I saw students who were diligently soldering and thinking while lights were flashing. They were clearly engaged. It was terrific.
The innovation community talks a lot about bringing innovation skills and opportunities to “south of 8.” CONNECT has the CONNECT All Program in conjunction with the Jacobs Center, and numerous “incubators” support early-stage entrepreneurs who have historically been underserved. I believe in this stuff. Yet, the challenge of “teaching entrepreneurship” should not be underestimated.
The class makeup was primarily Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, with the balance being Anglo. About 35 percent were women (I applaud women in science and engineering), and Dorr told me that many were the first in their family to attend college. These students are learning skills to “make things” (I fell in love with a portable practice guitar amplifier), but they had never been exposed to the other side of the equation — namely, what do I do with it after it is made? They had never been exposed to the classic, basic startup innovation issues — who is the customer, what is the cost of goods, how big is the market, what can we sell it for?
Now, I will confess that I am a bit of a wild man, and I gave them the full fire hose. This was the first time these students had even heard of or considered the possibility of starting a company. I discussed entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship. I told them about how the first digital camera was invented at Kodak, but now Apple and others own that space. I told them how Harry Warner figured out that it was cheaper to put sound on film with an optical reader rather than pay the orchestra — and talkies were born. We discussed Post-it notes and Scotch tape. We talked about the creation of “stuff.”
And I saw that there is a crying need to integrate “entrepreneurial thinking” into a college (and maybe high school) engineering curriculum, sooner than later. The startup bug blooms early in the computer science students, but getting an engineer to think differently is harder. They know what they know, and they do not take the next step until they know where their foot is going to land. That is antithetical to the entrepreneurial psyche that must learn to not only tolerate ambiguity, but to embrace it.
Several years ago, I taught in the graduate business school at SDSU, and I have taught at UCSD in the engineering school. My perception is that many academic disciplines still exist primarily in a silo. I would politely challenge those administrations that if they truly want to spur innovation in the American economy, then they need to actively promote more cross-pollination of diverse skill sets. The students need to think not just about the circuitry of the Dorr amplifier, but also the competitive landscape — can it be sold at what price and to whom — and how do I finance it.
We talked about inventions by mistake (Slinky, Silly Putty, plastic, the pacemaker) that changed the world. And we also talked about stories of inventors being cheated of their profits (the hula hoop). A recent Dorr graduate now works at the Jet Propulsion Lab, but in his four years, he had never had a class that opened the possibility of being his own boss.
We need to expand the story. If the San Diego innovation ecosystem (both academic and industry) can touch students earlier, open a few more eyes, suggest possibilities and alternatives not considered, then, in fact, the multiplier effect will come into play and more jobs with more companies will be created.
It isn’t just south of 8. Think big and broad. It is across all divides. It is teaching the next generation how to think differently, and at some level, how to dream.
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. [email protected]
Rule No. 649
Maybe Mick Jagger will endorse the amplifier.