Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Celebrating 10 years of the UNC Faculty Entrepreneurship Workshop

During the two-and-a-half day workshop, faculty learn skills that they can apply to ideas they’re working on today or tomorrow.

Alex Yarborough (School of Dentistry) and David Ansong (School of Social Work) talk.
UNC Faculty Entrepreneurship Workshop participants Alex Yarborough (School of Dentistry) and David Ansong (School of Social Work) discuss ideas during the workshop.

Every spring, small groups of the most enterprising faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill experience flashbacks of sitting in class as undergraduates. While participants in the Chancellor’s Faculty Entrepreneurship Workshop, which is sponsored by Chancellor Carol L. Folt and led by Innovate Carolina, these researchers and teachers find themselves in the shoes of the students they instruct: showing up eager to learn, collaborating on group projects and working feverishly toward final presentations.

This flipped classroom experience is relatively familiar territory for Carolina faculty. However, the subject of this crash course – entrepreneurship – can feel like entirely new terrain.

After all, faculty have more-than-full-time teaching and research responsibilities that consume their attention. Entrepreneurship is something they may choose to wade into gradually as time allows. Once they’re immersed, however, the transition to faculty entrepreneurs can become an experience of pure serendipity that leads them down exciting, reward-filled paths that they can’t predict.

“What in the world am I doing emailing Uzbekistan and talking to rappers in Egypt?” asked Mark Katz, Ruel W. Tyson, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Humanities and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, who also founded the international hip-hop diplomacy program Next Level. “That’s not what I thought I would be doing five years ago. This has not been a straightforward journey, but it’s been a gloriously winding journey.”

Katz is a 2010 alumnus of the faculty workshop, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in May. His subsequent work with Next Level led him to create a series of international workshops that use hip-hop to promote entrepreneurship and cultural understanding. The program has received $5 million in grants from the U.S. Department of State and hosted workshops in 21 countries since 2013.

“I know some of my colleagues probably hear the word entrepreneurship and feel an allergic reaction because they think, ‘That’s not what I do. I’m an artist or a humanities scholar, so why does that matter?’” said Katz. “But, in fact, it’s really a mindset and a way of thinking that can be applied to any area. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a scholar and have no intention of creating a business or venture of any sort. It can really help you simply in your thinking about how you do your scholarship, teaching and service.”

It’s that kind of broad thinking about the entrepreneurial journey that sparked optimism in Ronit Fraiman, assistant professor of applied physical sciences and a faculty participant in the 2018 event. “The most important thing I learned in the workshop is that entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes and that there are different ways and paths to be an entrepreneur,” said Fraiman. “It was inspiring to hear about the journey of other colleagues and realize that, after all the ups and downs, the wins and the losses, it will all be worth it in the end – and one day my dreams can also become a reality.”

Echoing the idea that an entrepreneurial way of thinking can have diverse applications, David Ansong, an assistant professor of social work, sees opportunities to use lessons from the workshop to enhance his research. “The workshop opened my eyes to subtle, yet practical ways that as I could bring an entrepreneurial mindset to bear on my work as a social work researcher to address complex social problems, without necessarily turning every intervention into a business or detaching from the core values of the helping profession,” he said.  Ansong is the principal investigator on a research project led by a team of social work faculty who received $75,000 via the 2017 C. Felix Harvey Award to help abused and neglected children find permanent homes with their grandparents and other relatives.

Rich Superfine, the Taylor-Williams Distinguished Professor of physics and astronomy and professor of applied physical sciences, shared how the entrepreneurial mindset is a key part of making a new dream at the University real: the new convergent science initiative and building plan at Carolina. The Institute for Convergent Science will bring basic and applied scientists from many disciplines together to pursue new discoveries and make an impact faster. And Superfine noted that a critical part of its success will be taking an entrepreneurial approach to building effective teams with individuals who can identify problems, teach one another, explore ideas together and launch solutions that get results.

He’s also seen the entrepreneurial movement also work on campus as the foundation for the applied physical sciences department, which he chairs. As the first new department in the sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill in 40 years, it was built on a new way of thinking. “This is an entrepreneurial venture within the University enterprise,” Superfine said of the department.

Katz’s initial introduction into the world of entrepreneurship at the University happened when he agreed to co-teach a music entrepreneurship course when the previous instructor was unavailable. “I wasn’t an entrepreneur, and I didn’t have a background in economics. But I drew on what I did know,” said Katz. “And what I did know was based on my research into music and technology, and in particular, hip hop.” That resourceful perspective and his involvement in the course landed Katz a valuable invitation.  “Perhaps, in part, because I was this accidental entrepreneurship teacher, I was invited to be in the workshop, which I remember being called entrepreneurship bootcamp at that time.”

Like most faculty, Katz didn’t show up to the Faculty Entrepreneurship Workshop with his ultimate idea in hand and ready to go. The majority arrive with inklings of projects, initiatives or businesses that they’d like to explore. And a small few come ready with innovative ideas or early ventures they’ve been working on for months or years. That’s exactly how the instructors and coaches who run the workshop want it – a group of diverse faculty thinkers whose varied ideas can all benefit from an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset.

“I have never considered my work to be entrepreneurial so, at first, I was unsure if the workshop would be applicable to me,” said Jessica Williams, assistant professor in the School of Nursing and a participant in the 2018 workshop. “This was one of the most valuable workshops in which I have participated because it allowed me to view my scholarship from a different perspective and think about my work in new, innovative ways.”

Continue reading on the Innovate Carolina website.