School is out; the pools are open, and July 4th is upon us so what better time to write a blog post equating entrepreneurship to diving? On a recent panel at InTheCapital’s DC UpFront event, I had the opportunity to comment on the debate about teaching entrepreneurship. I offered a metaphor that might seem simplistic, but effective and timely.
Teaching entrepreneurship is like teaching someone to dive off the high dive. Let me explain. Let’s first look at one approach to finding dive talent: you line up a bunch of kids who appear to have the right stamina and grace, march them up the ladder and have them attempt a 2 ½ somersault cold. If they don’t appear to be Greg Louganis or surprise you with a perfect Triple Lindy, you suggest they go back to the baby pool. Or, you do what I did this weekend with my 6-year-olds; baby steps. I took them to the side of the diving well and taught them some basic skills – hands out, heads down. They watched some older kids on the board – the approach, the takeoff, the execution, and the rare perfect entry. They have models. When they showed some progress I cheered them on, celebrated their small successes. When they belly-flopped I laughed with them and encouraged them to try again.
Will they be Olympic divers? Probably not, but as the adage goes, they won’t know if they don’t try. If I never expose them, never show them how to start, never help assuage some of the fear, never give them a small taste of that plunge, they certainly never will. Failure and mistakes often intensify passion and drive. Look at the stories of legendary entrepreneurs like Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Richard Branson and Larry Ellison to understand how their setbacks fueled their successes. V 1.0 of a product is never right, neither is V 1.0 of an entrepreneur.
And so, this is how we are teaching entrepreneurship at University of Maryland’s Dingman Center. The same way we teach diving, or even medicine or math. We are exposing thousands of students through competitions like our Cupid’s Cup (named for Kevin Plank’s student business Cupid’s Valentine —a perfect illustration of starting small) and course offerings like our Real 660. We are equipping them with basic skills to identify opportunities, talk to customers, test assumptions on new business models, prove big concepts in small ways. We are connecting them with a community of seasoned entrepreneurs, sophisticated investors, local startups, subject matter experts, researchers and more importantly each other. Most importantly, we are celebrating them for their entrepreneurial spirit.
Do all entrepreneurs start this way? No, of course not. We know that Mark Zuckerburg and Steve Jobs didn’t enroll in entrepreneurship classes. We know all entrepreneurs have a unique path. We also know that our economy is desperate for more entrepreneurs than we have now and we can’t rely on luck that they stumble across the high dive. The more students we expose to the entrepreneurial mindset and process, the more we support to prove their initial concepts, big or small, the better our chances of seeding an innovation economy.
Elana Fine (@elanafine) was appointed Managing Director of the Dingman Center in July 2012, after joining the team in 2010 as Director of Venture Investments. As Managing Director, Elana’s primary focus is leading the Dingman Center in support of its mission and strategic plan. Key responsibilities include oversight of our student venture incubator, Dingman Center Angels investor network, business competitions, and technology commercialization efforts. Elana also develops and maintains relationships with donors, board members, EIRs, the Smith School community and other campus and regional partners. She is also serving as co-chair of the Dean’s Task Force on Entrepreneurship and Innovation and will be working with our Academic Director to expand the Dingman Center’s research activities and curriculum development.