The Innovator Education Paradox

By Sean Newman Maroni

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We all know that the education system is imperfect.

In order to remain competitive in the global economy, American schools must better prepare our youth for the business challenges they will face. Specifically, schools must teach students to be problem solvers who can use their natural creativity and their education to produce new innovations.

To come up with a revolutionary new idea, you need the gift of creativity, and a deep understanding of the fundamental principals of the world we live in. While our school system is sometimes successful in teaching students these principals, it’s done by sacrificing creativity.

To create an obedient workforce for the industrial revolution era factories, our schools promoted conformity at every opportunity. To this day, we still sit our kids in orderly rows, schedule their days with a bell system, force them to memorize facts, and punish wrong answers.

By the time we are 21, this system has squished the natural creativity right out of us.

202772_10151180943575449_148356248_o-1024x617This was alarmingly obvious to me in college when as part of an entrepreneurship group I build a giant whiteboard designed to encourage passersby to scribble a creative idea.

I found that very often getting a peer to write a genuine idea in this public way was like pulling teeth. They would default to saying things like “I’m not creative…” and would sign their name and walk away.

Everyone is creative, but we’ve been conditioned to think otherwise.

It is this education at the expense of creativity that is the problem. Potentially innovative thought requires both. No creativity, and one cannot connect existing ideas in a novel way. No education, and the novel connections will be too trivial to be useful.

The Innovation Education Paradox, Sean Maroni

We must break out of this trap. We need to ditch the bells, the desks, the dense textbooks with answers in the back, and we need to stop medicating the curiosity from our kids. Currently innovation occurs in spite of our system, let’s make it happen because of the system.

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Sean Newman Maroni is a senior in mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University. He is a Student Ambassador and the co-founder of BetaVersity, a startup specializing in building and supporting innovation ecosystems (see our blog post on it here). Sean can be reached at Sean@BetaVersity.com, and can be found writing about the amplification of human potential at RefuseToPeak.com (reprinted by permission).

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943, Inventor of AC Electricity) Pitching Silicon Valley VCs

What if the guy who invented the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system were to pitch to a VC today. Would he have been funded?

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Check out this hilarious video commentary, produced by NorthernImagination.

From Wikipedia: Nikola Tesla (Serbian Cyrillic: Никола Тесла; 10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943) was a Serbian-American[2][3] inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system.[4]” Read more about Nikola Tesla here.

~ Humera Fasihuddin, Manager of Student Programming, T: @ihumera, via Sean Newman Maroni.

Why Being A Student Leader Is The Hardest and Best Thing College Offers

By Sean Newman Maroni

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In my first post, we played with the idea of creating “autocatalyzing” events–being the person who gets a new event or initiative started but then gives up control to another person or to the community itself. In this post, I’d like to elaborate on how I came to this idea, and explain why being a true student leader, while quite difficult, is a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow as a person.

1. You Get To Learn Something Real

When I found myself with the opportunity to lead 10 students in cultivating more entrepreneurship on campus, I was excited for the chance to make an impact. One of the first things I did to prepare was sign up for a leadership class offered specifically to undergraduates leading student organizations on campus. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to wrap my head around the whole “leadership” thing. Unfortunately, this turned out to be incorrect. In the class, we were exposed to all sorts of leadership styles, theories, and techniques. I did well on the tests, but found myself unable to apply any of the concepts to my role in the NC State Entrepreneurship Initiative.

If you took a foreign language in high school, you might have had a similar experience. Like many people, I took 4 years of high school Spanish, but today can’t hold a conversation with a native speaker to save my life. After “Hola, como estas, muy bien,” I’m like a deer in headlights. I don’t even know what to say if I’m NOT muy bien!

In both high school Spanish and this leadership class, I was learning about a topic, not learning a skill. I think Richard Feynman gets it right when he says that there is a big difference between knowing the names of things and actually knowing about that thing.

The very fact that we made it to college means that we are really good at “knowing the names of things” because our environment values that type of learning. Knowing what to call things is vitally important to effective communication. But as a student leader, you realize that knowing the difference between “Great Man Theory” and “Relational Based Leadership” means basically nothing. Taking the leadership class was not really what I was hoping for, but I ended up learning all that was needed by actually doing things, which not every student gets a chance to do.

2. You Stop Making Excuses

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“I just didn’t have time this week.”

As students, one of our favorite pastimes is telling other people how busy we are. We love boasting about our all nighters, the hours we spend in the library, and the amount of coffee we drink. Why is this?

During one EI Student Network meeting, Raleigh entrepreneur and friend Anthony Pompliano discussed the difference between being busy and being productive. He explained that in college he too would boast about spending 10 hours in the library “studying,” but in reality most of that time was spent on facebook, twitter, NFL.com, and doing anything other than actually studying. He talked about how in entrepreneurship, nobody cares how long you spent on a product, as long as it solves their need.

As a student leader, you have a rare opportunity to learn this lesson 5, 10, maybe 15 years before most people do. First, you will find that juggling classes, a life, and making an impact on campus will force you to reevaluate how you spend time. You will find that it is not possible to simply throw more hours at things, hoping that brute force will solve them.

Furthermore, you will learn how to handle situations when members of your team use the “I just didn’t have time” excuse after missing a deadline. When someone on your team is consistently missing deadlines, it’s a sign that they might not be a good fit for your team moving forward. I’m of the opinion that there are really no excuses for anything, because if you really want something you will make it happen. Making excuses is just a roundabout way of saying that someone or something is not a high priority for you, and these are not the people you want on your team.

3. You Start Viewing Constraints as Opportunities

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In the book “Rework,” one of my favorite entrepreneurs, David Heinemeier Hansson, explains why workaholics never win. His company, 37signals, is famous for taking on industry giants like Microsoft by selling aggressively simple software. David’s philosophy is not to work harder, but to use creativity to solve problems in easier ways. In 2005, David invented a widely popular open source programming language called Ruby on Rails. “Rails” now drives much of the web 2.0 space, but would you believe he developed it while running a design company, developing software of his own, and getting his MBA? Even crazier, he developed 37signals’ best selling project management product “Basecamp” on only 10 hours a week.

Imagine telling David that you didn’t have time to hang some flyers because you had homework due.

The thing about David is that he is not some super-human, he just understands that constraints are tremendous opportunities to innovate. While the world around him was complaining about how long it took to develop software, he invented a totally new programming language. He was forced to come up with a creative solution because he had more obligations than hours in the day.

Most college students don’t give themselves the opportunity to use creativity to work more effectively, and they let school consume their entire day. We spend whole weekends in the library simply because we can. This is “Parkinsons Law”–whatever work you have will consume all the allotted time for its completion.

As a student leader, you don’t have the luxury of unchecked procrastination. If you want to hang onto your grades, make an impact, and get your 8 hours of sleep in a night, you need to find creative ways to detach your time from value. This pressure is where the idea of creating autocatalytic events came about, which has at least doubled our community’s size.

By embracing constraints, you can do great work. Don’t let any one part of your life consume all your time; box it up and starting looking for unobvious ways to do more in less time.

4. The Opportunity Snowball

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? The final reason that being a student leader is the best thing you can do in college is it can begin a lifelong accumulation of advantage. Studies cited by famous books like Gladwell’s “Outliers” are proving that most successful people become successful through a compounding series of opportunities. By doing a great job at everything they do, one initially small opportunity leads to more and more chances to do what they love and discover even more opportunities. I certainly believe that my time as a student leader is the start of a snowball effect of great new things to come.

So grab your chance to make an impact and do they very best you can. There’s no telling what new doorways may open.


sean-newman-maroniSean Newman Maroni is a senior in mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University. He is a Student Ambassador and the co-founder of BetaVersity, a startup specializing in building and supporting innovation ecosystems (see our blog post on it here). Sean can be reached at Sean@BetaVersity.com, and can be found writing about the amplification of human potential at RefuseToPeak.com

Cultivating an Entrepreneurial Community as a Student Leader

By Sean Newman Maroni

Building a university entrepreneurial community is unlike any other student leadership role. As a student leader of NC State’s Entrepreneurship Initiative for the last three years, I’ve learned a lot about sparking entrepreneurship and why many university entrepreneurship programs fail. This article is the first of a 12-part series on cultivating thriving innovation ecosystems in the often constraining university environment.

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Humans (and College Students) Don’t Scale

If you are a student leader, you will learn this lesson sooner than most. To make a dent in the way your campus operates, you will quickly find that time is your scarcest resource. Being any kind of student leader inevitably intensifies the college student lament about the zero-sum game of balancing sleep, grades, and a social life.

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When I started helping build our community, my triangle was engineering classes, entrepreneurial endeavors of my own, and planning events. Minimizing sleep felt like some sort of badge of honor, and my “reality distortion field” worked to soothe the academic concerns of my parents. These sacrifices seemed warranted because as “President” of the EI community, I felt it was my responsibility to do everything I could to make things happen. But despite the time investment, too many of my initiatives could be summed up with “at least there was pizza.”

It became clear that something needed to change.

After reading a few good books, watching hours of Stanford eCorner videos, and reflecting, I decided to try to remove the “I and me” from the equation. I had mistakenly conflated the fancy “President” title with my importance, and as a result limited the potential of people around me. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship’s past is filled with great ideas that died due to a similar arrogance of leadership. Steve Jobs explains his own struggles with this concept here.

As a student leader, you have a unique opportunity to avoid developing the habits of ego and hubris that can squander a group’s potential. If you give someone responsibility and trust, their IQ will miraculously double.

Autocatalysis

What do chemical reactions have to do with event planning?

It turns out more than you think.

An autocatalytic reaction occurs when the output of the reaction contains the inputs of that same reaction. What makes these reactions so cool is that if you have the basic input ingredients for one reaction to occur, a self-sustaining and possibly accelerating chain of activity ensues. This idea is used by tech startups in the form of “network effects” to accelerate growth. The explosion of a viral video is autocatalytic because one “share” leads to more shares, which in turn leads to still more sharing.domino

Your main focus in creating new events and initiatives should be to integrate autocatalysis. This is how it is possible to grow a community without letting it consume all of your time.

For example, we once built something called an eBoard as a way of spreading the word about our events. It’s a giant free standing whiteboard that we place in the middle of high traffic areas to market events. Back when I was the only person that deployed the eBoard, it saw the light of day 2-3 times a semester. Now, we allow anyone in the EI community to check out the eBoard to promote their own projects. This leads to even more people discovering our innovation space, attending events, and in even turn more people using the eBoard.

We’ve also created an autocatalytic “Community Office Hours” program. We started this when we noticed that entrepreneurs are highly interested in connecting with students, sharing insights, and offering them opportunities. To start this program, I invited a local attorney to work out of our innovation space, “The Garage,” for a few hours on a Friday afternoon. I posted on our facebook group and sent out an email that he would be in the Garage to offer free legal advice from 3-5 pm, and that anyone was welcome to show up. The first session went well, so I welcomed him to post on our facebook group anytime he planned to hold hours. He shared this with other local feeders to the entrepreneurial community, and it’s taking off. This program only required one meeting and few emails to set up, yet it’s been quite valuable. By giving trusted community members direct access to our channels, I’ve removed myself as a bottleneck for serendipitous entrepreneurship to happen. We are experimenting with even more autocatalysis by getting students to start holding their own office hours.

I encourage you to think of unique ways to make events self-sustaining; there is truly no limit to how big you can go.

Steps to Starting Autocatalytic Events

1. Listen. In community building, your target market is all around you. Consistently seek out the opinions of others to understand what they’d like to see happen. If someone voices enthusiasm for creating something, ask if they would like to take the lead on making it happen.

2. Design with the end in mind. Since your goal is to create self-sustaining events, think of unique ways to integrate autocatalysis and empower many community members to take ownership of its success.

3. Actively Create The First Reaction. If you are the lead person on a project, it is your job to be the catalyst that begins the chain reaction. Pinpoint the essential tasks that must be completed to go from idea to first iteration, and proceed to execute, taking every opportunity to engage your team’s unique skills.

4. Empower a “DRI.” After the first iteration of a new program, identify a “Directly Responsible Individual” who is interested in sustaining that event in the future. Ideally, this is the person who came up with the idea, or contributed the most so far. Trust this person to execute, and be prepared to support them when needed. Even if you have a fancy title like “President,” it’s your job to support, not control a DRI. DRI’s are responsible for the day to day things that need to be done to make something happen, and perpetually improving the quality of that initiative.

5. Manage the sun and the rain, but let the plants do their thing. Let DRI’s and the community shape the budding events and spend your time ensuring the fundamental ingredients of an entrepreneurial culture are in place. Entrepreneurship is inevitable if all the right inputs are present, but dies if any input is missing for too long. A few of these include a rich talent density, communal acceptance of new ideas and participants, cross-disciplinary perspectives, a “failure = learning” mindset, and using reciprocity as a currency of opportunity.

6. Know that not everything will work. If you are confident that the right ingredients are in place, but a certain event is still not working, it’s ok to let it go. There is an element of natural selection in community building; if the community doesn’t find something valuable it’s ok to let it die.

The role of a community builder is to create the conditions for entrepreneurship to happen. Work to put the right people, resources, and entrepreneurship mindset in place, but trust the people around you to build on that foundation. After giving up control and reframing my role, our community has doubled in size, we’ve launched more companies, had a lot more fun, and I’ve actually received more (undeserving) recognition than when I was trying to do it all myself. No man is an island; the entire community must help craft an ecosystem to be proud of.

This article is the first in a series of writings on creating thriving university innovation ecosystems.

sean-newman-maroniSean Newman Maroni is a senior in mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University. He is a Student Ambassador and the co-founder of BetaVersity, a startup specializing in building and supporting innovation ecosystems (see our blog post on it here). Sean can be reached at Sean@BetaVersity.com, and can be found writing about the amplification of human potential at RefuseToPeak.com

Four Student Ambassadors Launch Innovation Space Venture, BetaVersity

Congratulations to Student Ambassadors Sean Maroni (NCSU), Lucas Arzola (UC Davis), Blake Marggraff (Washington University St. Louis), and Jared Karp (UC Berkeley) who launched BetaVersity this past April. BetaVersity designs and installs prototyping labs and ‘design kitchens’ for students to not only cook up new ideas, but also to make them a reality.
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For a fee, campuses can be up and running with a space and brand that draws students from all disciplines to design and bring their idea to life. For their investment, campuses receive training and support for student leaders and campus officials who are increasingly recognizing the importance of supporting a ‘maker culture’ to support the anticipated demand in manufacturing jobs (summarized well in this Forbes piece: The End of Chinese Manufacturing and Rebirth of U.S. Industry).

Within a month, the team landed their first customer UC Davis and now lists UC Berkeley and North Carolina State University as BetaVersity sites. These happen to represent three of the four locations where the founders go to school, so my guess is that Washington University at St. Louis will take advantage of their ‘in’ before BetaVersity has a backlog.

Tim Huntley’s piece BetaVersity – Taking Innovation to School, in An Entrepreneurial Life, credits the team’s visit to Stanford E-Week. There, the founding team met for the first time learning about the value of innovation spaces like Stanford’s D.Lab or ‘The Garage’ on Google’s campus. Imagine the power of connected innovation spaces on each of the nation’s 350 undergraduate engineering schools. Now THAT would make for an economically competitive future. To learn more, visit their website at www.betaversity.com.

~ Humera Fasihuddin, Manager of Student Programming, T: @ihumera

Bottling the Bay Area and Stanford Magic

Student Ambassadors travel to Bay Area, attend Stanford E-Week

Nine top-performing Student Ambassadors had an immersive experience in Silicon Valley last week to bring back best practices to their campuses. Some may say, “What happens at Stanford can’t be replicated in our region!” Perhaps not in its entirety. But, we think by breaking down the constituent parts of the magic that is at Stanford and its surrounding area, Student Ambassadors learned valuable new tools that will enhance their own Entrepreneurship and Innovation (E&I) ecosystems.

Student Ambassadors reported that the trip was life-changing for them and as one student described, it was a “completely tremendous experience, exceeded literally every other leadership/entrepreneurship event I’ve ever had the chance to attend.” They learned about several key-ingredients in the secret sauce at Stanford, including the importance of optimizing SPACE for creative thinking, to “unencumber the mind from constraints”. They learned about being EMPATHETIC, which allows them to get at the root of the source of the problems for people instead of just treating symptoms of assumed problems. They were involved in 2-hour and 12-hour DESIGN CHALLENGES saying, “it was cool to work with a team of strangers to get something done.” They attended a lecture with Tom Byers that “broke down entrepreneurship” and spent some one-on-one time with Byers who inspired them to lead an E&I movement on their campuses.

Off-campus, they met examples of rising-star INTRAPRENEURS at Google and EBay/PayPal and saw first-hand how Google’s open workspaces, casual atmosphere, and amenities like free food and laundry service maintain happy/healthy/productive people who foster an their inherent culture of design thinking, creativity and innovation. Students returned to the d.lab to have a one-on-one with CEO Rick Klau of Google Ventures who imparted words of wisdom like “beware of small successes”, and kicked-off roundtables with 12 portfolio company CEOs. Student Ambassadors also attended lectures and signature classes like the Entrepreneurship Thought Leaders Series (top download from iTunes U) with the four founders of SkyBox Imaging, followed by a discussion of their backstories with the Spirit of Entrepreneurship Class, taught by Draper Fisher Jurvetson Partner Heidi Roizen.

All-in-all, the trip was amazing, exhausting and inspiring. Students Ambassadors are all digesting the experience and returning to their campuses having bottled a bit of the magic. Stay tuned for more as we develop step-by-step materials that teach Student Ambassador how to implement the implementable on their campuses. In the meantime, recruit a Student Ambassador to attend our Spring Training, which begins at the OPEN Conference on March 21st of this month (register here: Apply).

~ Humera Fasihuddin, Manager of Student Programming, T: @ihumera

UPDATE 3/26/13: View additional photos at the Epicenter Facebook Album.

E-Boards, Awesome Boards and Gigantic LCD Screens

Flyers, sidewalk chalk drawings, tweets and Facebook events are some of the usual suspects when it comes to campus promotional methods… but giant whiteboards?


These days Student Ambassadors are deploying creative methods of reaching out to fellow students with the message that innovation and entrepreneurship are happening activities on campus. We first learned of the “eBoard” back in September when North Carolina State University student Sean Maroni created a massive triangular whiteboard structure and planted it in the center of campus during the 125th Anniversary Campus Festival, Packapalooza, a time where freshman and others get a lay of the land for organization and activities on campus. As organizers of the Entrepreneurship Initiative, Sean and his team found the physical ‘hook’ very effective in catching the attention of passers by, including the Chancellor of NC State!

And the results? Says Maroni, “We gave them an expo marker and told them to be as creative as they like. There were 3-4 of us walking around the eBoard and talking about our organization as people were drawing. We had signup sheets taped right to each side of the board, which was great way to get their contact information. We had about a 45% conversion rate getting people to sign up. At the event pictured we collected over 120 emails! We also encouraged people to twitpic or instagram their contribution to @ncsuei #eBoard.”

Maroni goes on to say, “The eBoard was successful in my opinion because it is unique and interactive. People really liked getting the chance to add something new to it, and to read all the other contributions. The most important thing is to have volunteers around the board engaging with people, and using the board as a conversation starter. If you set up a booth and hand out flyers, people might remember your organization. If you get them creating, thinking, and smiling, they definitely will.”

Inspired by Sean’s ingenuity, Colorado State University student Fletcher Richman raised $1,000 from the Awesome Boulder Foundation (yes there is such a thing) to create the AwesomeBoard, which attracted hundreds of students over a two-day period to “students to brainstorm, collaborate, and ideate on’ the four-sided structure of similar construction.

Tayler Swanson at Rochester Institute of Technology took a different tact. Swanson ratcheted down an enormous LDC screen just outside of the beautiful Innovation Center building, located in the center of campus. Tayler controls content, displaying announcements for event and news related to campus innovation activities. We’re working on getting a photo of the awesomely large digital display, but until then we’ll give you the view from inside the Innovation Center (below).

View from inside RIT’s Innovation Center