Entrepreneurship & the Liberal Arts

There is an ongoing tension that exists between the tenets of higher education and the key principles of entrepreneurship. Our role at CIE, as a research institute, is not to fight those tenants, but instead to supplement them. This means we must be honest with ourselves about the challenges entrepreneurs face as students of a rigorous liberal arts college and we seek to understand the best role we can play in the lives of student entrepreneurs-just exactly what our role is can be complicated.

Peter Thiel, Co-founder of PayPal and The Founders Fund, and the Rand Paul of Silicon Valley, offers the best insight into this dichotomy. Thiel, in a famed course at Stanford University, presents the idea of vertical and horizontal innovation. He claims that vertical innovation is when an organization goes from “0-1 (e.g. the invention of the light bulb). Horizontal innovation on the other hand is from “1-n” (e.g. the newest iteration of the iPhone). Thiel makes broader claims about how horizontal innovation is moving at record speed while vertical innovation is rare in today’s economy (Clayton Christiansen makes a similar claim in the most recent edition of the Harvard Business Review,) but what he says about higher education is more relevant to our work. Thiel goes on to say that education, in its most basic form, is the epitome of the “1-N” approach. The structure of higher education involves the recitation of previous researchers, writers, etc. with the best students hopefully adding their own interpretation of that work. This work is undeniably important and innovative but doesn’t seem to be the kind of innovation that drives the greatest ventures of our time. I believe this dichotomy demonstrates our primary challenge at the CIE. That is, how we advance this type of “0-1” thinking within an institution built on the “1-N” approach.

So far I have three theories: 1) ventures that seek to solve “0-1” issues are those started by people who are incredibly curious and passionate, 2) funders of those ventures are deeply connected with the mission of their venture, and 3) for those people, the most useful thing CIE can do is just to make their lives easier.

Of the first two points I think the latter is more important because it often brings out the former. Of the most successful ventures started at CMC in last few years, many (if not most) have included some aspect of “social good.” While I think this represents a generational movement towards businesses that do good for the world, I also think it indicates how much easier it can be to start a venture in college when you are truly invested in the cause you are working towards. What I have observed is that student entrepreneurs who are successful in college need to be deeply motivated by whatever there are working on in order to reconcile the massive sacrifices they are making. At an undergraduate level, students can more easily find their passion through important social issues rather than areas of deep expertise such as BioTech or HR Software. Of the most successful for-profit ventures I have observed, each has been lead by founders who find an equally compelling connection to their product- whether it be software or Clean technology. Students who are deeply connected to their work are not only more likely to make the sacrifices needed to succeed, they seem to perform better, and mentors, funders, and co-workers notice. This, to me, seems to embody the liberal arts doctrine.

If this theory is true than CIE’s role should be threefold: to help students identify problems that inspire them, to foster the creativity and intrepidity to face those problems head-on, and lastly, and most importantly, to do whatever we can to make their lives as student-entrepreneurs easier. This last claim is not mine originally- Miles Bird, former ASCMC Vice President, and current Director of Business Development at Kairos helped all of us understand this when we started the CIE. Working on a venture in college is really difficult. We are all full-time students, most likely working jobs to pay for school and outings, and overwhelmed everyday by a multitude of events and extracurricular activities. The idea of starting a company in the middle of all of this is pretty insane. So the people who take the leap have to contain serious passion for what their doing or else they will burn out or worse, finish college with no idea of what interests them or drives them as both students or individuals.

So what can we do to make entrepreneurs’ lives easier? Well we are still figuring that out. Our physical space is a start. We try and provide a space for entrepreneurs to feel inspired and creative and to meet like-minded students. We started our summer fellowship so that students could continue working with fellow students over the summer with a stipend and access to various resources. We provide access to CIE’s vast alumni network and try to identify resources at CMC, across the 5C’s, and within Southern California so motivated students may take advantage of them. All of these are a start but ultimately, they’re just that. The biggest accomplishment we have made so far is that we exist and now we must focus on existing in the future.

In the next year all of CIE’s original founders will graduate. Not only do I hope that CIE continues to grow beyond all of our own expectations, but that the entrepreneurial community as a whole grows too. Both have grown beyond my wildest dreams in the last three years. As the next leadership team introduces new initiatives and moves in new directions, I suspect CIE’s role on campus will stay the same: to enable inspired students to solve the problems they feel passionate about. Only then will we capture the true meaning of “innovation.”