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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

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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

Freshman & Sophomores Get Practical Design & Project Experience in Biomedical Engineering

In this video interview Georgia Tech rising senior Jim Schwoebel describes his experience entering college knowing his destiny was to invent, innovate and be an entrepreneur. But, when he got to Georgia Tech, he found that most of the innovation resources were geared to juniors, seniors and grad students.


Freshman and sophomores weren’t getting the practical medical design, problem solving, project or clinical industry exposure that attracted them to the biomedical engineering track in the first place. So, he did what any good entrepreneur does… he developed what he believed the student market needed… the Medical Device Entrepreneurship Association, an undergraduate club that solved the problem by forming project teams and exposing underclassmen to industry experts and advisors. Learn more by watching the video interview or read the Q&A below.

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Jim Schwoebel started the MDEA, a club exposing freshman and sophomores at Georgia Tech to design, invention and innovation opportunities.

Q: What were your experiences a young innovator at Georgia Tech and why did you start the student biomedical entrepreneurship club, MDEA?

I entered college knowing I wanted to invent and innovate. I would download Stanford’s popular podcasts, the ‘Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders’ series in high school. I had an interest specifically in the talks pertaining to medical device entrepreneurship. So when I started my education at Georgia Tech, I looked to participate in medical entrepreneurship in some way. But when I began this search, I noted these problems:

  • There were many top-down initiatives pertaining to biotechnology commercialization tailored to graduate students and faculty emerging on Georgia Tech’s campus, but few of these initiatives was tailored to undergraduate students (e.g. TRIBES, the BioID program).
  • There were also many undergraduate entrepreneurship organizations emerging across Georgia Tech (Enterprise 2 Empower – Social Enterprise, Startup Exchange – space for entrepreneurs), few which provided a niche for creating medical device companies.
  • Also, I did not feel like my educational experience was training me well to have the knowledge that I needed to start a medical device company. There are regulatory complexities, clinical affairs considerations, reimbursement considerations, etc. involved in starting a medical device company, and I did not know where I could go to find this information and feel comfortable with it.

The connecting thread of these problems was that there was an ill-defined medical device ecosystem tailored to undergraduate students at my school, and I felt that by starting this organization this ecosystem would begin to take shape. And after a few months, the networks and resources we built up could be utilized by students to get mentorship and advice in starting companies.

Q: Who participated and what types of things do students do?

Because I am a biomedical engineering student, the main people who participated in our activities were biomedical engineering undergraduate students, but we have tried to reach into all schools and departments to create an interdisciplinary community for medical innovation. So far, we have held two major types of events. The first is a networking session where medical device entrepreneurs and designers come out and speak to students. Called the Roads to Medical Innovation Entrepreneurship Forum, this event is a roundtable discussion where students rotate tables and talk with successful entrepreneurs who have succeeded in starting medical device companies. In this way, this event could stimulate interest and confidence within students to start medical device companies and develop networks useful in the company development process.

Georgia Tech also has a large machine shop – the Invention Studio – with many tools to build and create medical devices, which is maintained by students. Our organization has held events at the machine shop to help students build their devices. We have also partnered with GCMI – the global center for medical innovation – which specializes in prototyping early-stage medical technology for start-up companies. These experiences for students have definitely helped them with their design and prototyping experience related to medical device entrepreneurship.

Beyond general membership events, the executive board is divided up into a networking committee and events committee. The networking committee has 5 networking chairs – student, research, nonprofit, industry, and clinical networking chairs. The goal of the networking committee is to attend conferences and events within the Atlanta community that can help MDEA into the future (recruiting guest speakers, getting introduced to legal networks, etc.). The events committee then makes use of the networks maintained by the networking committee to host events to general members. Therefore, students on the executive board get to attend many interesting events that aid in professional development (I attended 5-6 conferences last year). We designed it this way so that the organization can be applied and adapted to any arbitrary community, so that students of other schools may be able to mimic the model to centralize networks and resources within their communities through our model. With this strategy, we believe we have seeded an ecosystem that can continue to grow and add additional events such as educational seminars and business strategy workshops.

Q: What types of things should a Student think about if they were wanted to start a club like this?

I would suggest the following:

  • Choose a good faculty advisor (someone who has started a company) – when I mention Dr. Ken Gall’s name, so many people know him in the medical entrepreneurship community that it helps us with initial branding/marketing to other faculty and entrepreneurs
  • Establish organizational partnerships – Georgia Tech has a President’s Council for all biomedical engineering-related organizations which has helped us to
  • Make a good website – good for marketing purposes and extend reach into industry (that’s how Drexel University contacted me to start a chapter)
  • Partner with existing faculty initiatives (GCMI, GTRI, etc.) – allows you to possibly find funding more easily and helps you to access useful networks

Beyond these things, I would download the expansion package resources that we have created from our organization in the first year of development. We have set-up a webpage where students from other schools can start a new MDEA chapter. This page allows you to watch a video and download resources regarding our organizational model. These resources include advertising materials, business cards, a constitution, funding leads, links to our website, logos, an organizational proposal, PowerPoints, recruitment emails, a 1 year strategic plan, and website resources. In this way, we hope to empower students from other schools to benefit from the work that we have done, as well as expand our model into a cross-university, open source community.

On behalf of students looking for meaningful opportunities for innovation in the University environment, I’d like to thank Jim for spearheading this effort, serving as a student changemaker at Georgia Tech, and taking the time to tell us about it. Jim and his team are very interested in ‘open sourcing’ all the information about how to set up a club like MDEA on your campus. I encourage students at other BME campuses to look at the information Jim makes available (mentioned above), right here. Maybe YOU can lead the way, like Jim did, on your campus.

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

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

BU eClub is raising up a storm

The Boston University eClub really has its act together. I met with president Max Veggeburg to discuss TEDxBU “Students Startup America” and he was all for it. He and other eClub board members have organized the Boston Startup Weekend, to be hosted at BU! For a small fee, students spend the weekend meeting influential entrepreneurs and working in teams to push a product towards market. Any full time Boston student can pay $25 for 7 meals and a 54 hour crash course in entrepreneurship.

Check it out: http://boston.startupweekend.org/

Aside from that, there are plenty of opportunies hosted by the club to learn and grow. Last night I met with CampusLive.com COO over pizza to discuss VC funding. There I ran into several underclassmen who are ready to start their own businesses and were eagerly taking notes. Before I knew it, Ryan Durkins and I were talking about a mutual friend and are scheduled for dinner Friday night. I cannot express the amount of opportunity there is for entrepreneurs here.

There is also a talk this Thursday: “10 Mistakes First-Time Founders Make, But Don’t Have To”. Highland Capital’s Alexander Taussig will be speaking. What a fantastic chance for Boston students to learn.

The other remarkable thing about the BU eClub is the amount of interconnectivity they have with other similiar student organizations: the Graduate Entrepreneur’s Club, Engineering Entrepreneur’s Club, etc. The advisors to the eClub are known far and wide and they are constantly hosting great events.

I have noticed, however, there is little to no attention paid to businesses and technologies with social impact. The more I talk about NCIIA grants, the more eyebrows I see being raised. Before we know it, the NCIIA will be well intertwined with BU and its brilliant student organizations.

 

Joe McMahon – NCIIA BU Student Ambassador