Entrepreneur class links innovation, liberal arts

Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” played as 300 students in Introduction to Entrepreneurship (Economics 125) listened.

Unlike other musical pieces played at the beginning of each class during the fall 2012 semester, this one was not on the original list that Chancellor Holden Thorp and Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser had chosen.

The last-minute selection was an example of the iterative, experimental – indeed entrepreneurial – approach that Thorp and fellow instructors Buck Goldstein, the University’s entrepreneur-in-residence, and John Akin, former economics department chair, took in developing the new course.

As Thorp noted, the song’s theme of teen rebellion resonated in a course designed to inspire students to knock down the artificial wall that often separates business programs from the liberal arts.

Throughout the semester, Carolina professors from many different fields joined an eclectic group of outside speakers as guest lecturers. They ranged from AOL co-founder Steve Case, to Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, to Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany.

Each one used his or her own experiences and expertise to help tear down the wall brick by brick.

The class, which met in the new Genome Sciences Building, reflects a broader effort by administrators to expose more students to the principles of innovation and entrepreneurship.

In 2010, under Thorp’s leadership, UNC launched “Innovate@Carolina: Important Ideas for a Better World,” a roadmap for innovation in science, business, medicine, nonprofits and academia.

Supported by a $125 million fundraising effort, it has since spawned smaller projects such as Carolina Creates, a new student organization focused on fostering connections among students, faculty, staff and members of the Chapel Hill community to enhance the University community as a whole.

Planting the seed of innovation

Goldstein said the creation of the class was in part a reaction to high demand for spots in UNC’s Minor in Entrepreneurship, which accepts 100 students each year. It has been in existence for six years, and last year there were almost 300 applicants.

Organizers hope the course will eventually join traditional heavyweights such as Economics 101 and Psychology 101, which fill quickly year after year. It is also seen as an important step in preparing graduates for an international economy that requires the United States to invest in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Because it is open to students who are not majoring in business, the course helps plant the seed of innovation throughout campus so it can grow across disciplines, said Mathilde Verdier, who helped organize the class as program assistant for the Minor in Entrepreneurship.

For some students, the course will lead to enrollment in the minor, Verdier said. Others will be exposed to a way of thinking that could prove useful in whatever course of study they pursue.

The indispenable role of a liberal arts education

A recurring theme in the course was the indispensable role of a liberal arts education in not only preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist, but also in giving entrepreneurs the intellectual tools they will need to develop ideas for businesses that will house those jobs.

Econ 125 defined an entrepreneur as someone who identifies an opportunity, gathers the necessary resources, creates a venture and takes on ultimate responsibility for its success. The course also framed an intellectual and historical context for understanding the process of innovation and the different ways entrepreneurship can exist.

For instance, Ken Weiss, an entrepreneur in the entertainment industry who has worked with songwriters from Bob Dylan to Ira Gershwin, talked about artistic entrepreneurship. Kopp and Dennis Whittle, the CEO and co-founder of Global Giving, talked about social entrepreneurship.

Learning from failure

Thorp traced the history of scientific entrepreneurship from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs, and he shared some of his own experience as a scientific entrepreneur in which success was forged from the lessons of failure.

Failure as an learning tool was a recurring theme throughout the course.

Akin told students that entrepreneurs look for opportunities, take risks and often fail. That’s because markets allow anyone to try anything, but markets also allow anyone to fail. To succeed, entrepreneurs have to generate profit by offering something new, or better or at a lower cost than is already available.

Read the full story from the University Gazette.

Published January 11, 2013.