What makes a great leader? A recommended reading list

Who is Simon Sinek? He is a thought leader on leadership and wrote the book “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.” Below, Thu-Huong Ha has posted a list of five books and two documentaries that made a difference in Sinek’s own path to leadership.

What makes a great leader? A recommended reading list

INTRODUCING: Leadership Circle pilot

PLEASE NOTE: This article was posted during the Leadership Circle pilot in spring 2014, so the information contained may be outdated. For all current information, see the Info for Students and Info for Faculty pages. 

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishment toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” – Andrew Carnegie

University Innovation Fellows are rocking it! In a survey of 28 Fellows last Spring, students reported holding events, convening workshops, serving on faculty advisory committees, building maker spaces and creating venture funds. These Fellows reached over 9,000 other students. What was our biggest a-ha moment in studying these students’ success? Fellows who built the strongest teams were able to scale their efforts and create a structure that created lasting institutional impact.

That’s why we’re piloting a new program for the Spring 2014 cohort called the Leadership Circle. The Leadership Circle will allow up to 5 candidates to go through the 6-week University Innovation Fellows training together. Together, they’ll discover the assets and resources on their campus, contrast their ecosystem with others around the nation and arrive at new approaches to reach and engage students in activities that enhance their entrepreneurial mindset.  Supporting one another, and supported by a national network of peers, they’ll creatively experiment with strategies that ultimately achieve results despite the inertia that may exist in many of our environments.

We are calling for a team of interdisciplinary students including engineering and non-engineering students that stem from different class years (i.e., freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, graduate, Ph.D.) to apply today. Here’s what you need to know:

For future candidates:

1.   Recruit like-minded peers who are willing to serve as change agents to help expose fellow students to more hands-on, experiential and entrepreneurial learning opportunities. Working alongside one-another in the 6-week training, you’ll not only feel more confident and empowered, but you’ll have more fun in a shared training-experience;

2.  Have team members complete the student application and gather their Faculty/Dean letters of support;

3.  Find one Faculty Sponsor to submit the faculty application. The fee remains at the same $2,000 rate and includes a travel stipend for one Fellow to attend OPEN 2014. All five teammates are welcome to attend and we encourage you to raise additional funding to make this possible. To complete the request to participate in this pilot, the Faculty Sponsor is required to submit a letter of support from the College or University President (or Vice President / Vice Chancellor / Vice Provost).

For future and current faculty sponsors:

1. Pick your students. If you have trouble picking just one driven, passionate student that seeks to change the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem on your campus, you now have the ability to tap 5 student change agents.  And, if you are having trouble thinking of 5 students, just ask the one or two students whom you have identified to scout out prospects within their network or reach out to faculty and staff members around your campus;

2. Have the students complete their student applications and gather their faculty letters of support (not necessarily from the same faculty member);

3. Complete your Faculty Sponsorship application. In this pilot phase, we are not increasing the fee from $2,000, but rather requiring you to secure a letter of support from the College or University President. Check the box indicating the willingness for your campus to be selected for the Leadership Circle pilot. Note: The team will need to peer select which delegate will be sent to the OPEN 2014 conference in San Jose (March 19-22) or raise additional funding to send multiple teammates.

For current UI Fellows:

If you completed training and are a full-fledged UI Fellow (congrats!) that seeks to build a team, you may find student peers that want to join your mission. Start talking to students and your faculty sponsor about putting a new team of candidates through this spring training. Think about what you could accomplish with 5 new team members that have the opportunity to participate in the same training! Refer new teammates to the steps above, under ‘For Future Candidates’.

 To recap:

  • Each student must complete a student application, which they can request here. Each student must provide a faculty letter of support. If participating as a team, these letters of support do not need to be from the same faculty member.

  • ONE faculty sponsor must complete the faculty application, which can be requested here , where they can also pay the training fee. Please make sure to check the box that indicates your interest in the Leadership Circle and that you plan to send a President or VP-level letter of support.

If you have further questions, please post them below so we can share the Q&A with other visitors. We will respond in a timely manner. If you would like to speak to someone directly, please contact Humera Fasihuddin at or Katie Dzugan at  We are looking forward to a great spring cohort!

Essential Reads for Engineers and their Peers

By Elliot Roth

This is a list compiled by the University Innovation Fellows of life-changing books. Each is a wonderful exposition into different facets of innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ve been working my way through this list, and have learned amazing lessons that have changed my perception on innovation, creativity, leadership and my journey as a student entrepreneur.

IMG_9177By Elliot Roth is a Junior in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University. His interests are myriad and include slam poetry, music, international jewel thievery, being an EMT, and writing incredible articles as a Student Ambassador. You can reach him at and follow him on twitter @rothet

What the movie “Jobs” tells you about being an entrepreneur

By Elliot Roth

I went to see “Jobs” the other day with some friends and was thoroughly entertained. Ashton Kutcher’s acting was spot-on, with an excellent appearance from Josh Gad as Woz, who acted as Jobs’ conscience for most of the movie. I’m not sure whether Woz agreed with the performance, but it definitely tugged at my heartstrings.

The film was very Hollywood, with plenty of inaccuracies , but still gave some important lessons about entrepreneurship and starting a company:

1. Find the oddballs with the crazy ideas

From the very beginning of the movie, you can tell that Steve Jobs was a bit different. He dropped acid, cheated on his girlfriend, went to India, and sat-in on college courses without paying. Not only was Jobs different, but he gravitated to others who were strange, others with obsessions. You could label them as “geeks” but it’s more about having a single-minded determination and focus.


For example, Woz was a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, a fringe group of electrical hobbyists that believed in the social power of computers to connect and enable humanity. Back then, that idea sounded crazy, but this fringe group had the skill and knowledge to make it possible.

If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, but have no marketable skills, go to your local DIY meeting or Makerspace. You can learn something new, and find co-founders who may want to partner with you to bring their idea to life. Also, these groups may contain some of your first customers.steve-jobs-in-his-own-words

2. Customer first

Apple had its first customer before it was even a company. Paul Terrell ran a small computer parts store in the Valley and agreed to retail the Apple I. Jobs and Woz were in way over their heads before they even started. They needed to ship 50 boards in two months. They didn’t have the parts, they didn’t have the labor, and the prototype still needed some work. It was do or die.

The story of Steve and Woz’s first customer illustrates that you can never be ready for starting a business; you must constantly adapt and hustle to get things done. Their first customer also taught them some essential lessons for the future.

3. Oversell and over deliver

In the movie, Jobs is approached by Paul Terrell who still wants to buy the Apple I after a fumbling presentation. Jobs immediately begins underselling by saying that there are others interested in the Apple I (in truth there were none), but he’d stop by the shop. He walks into the shop the next day and immediately begins bargaining with such confidence that Terrell is taken aback and agrees to a large sale.

This salesmanship is repeated again when Mike Markkula comes to invest. Steve is quick and never loses his cool in the face of defeat or success. He renegotiates the contract to better benefit Apple and shows that Markkula isn’t dealing with amateurs.

What “Jobs” doesn’t show is the amount of behind-the-scenes research that goes into those snappy sales. By knowing the industry, and finance, you can make investments and sales work to your benefit. Steve knew that he needed some money in advance in order to build the Apple I. He worked out the pricing beforehand and oversold the computer to make a profit.

The last thing any entrepreneur should do is give up equity in your company. Steve knew that at a $300,000 evaluation, $90,000 is less than 1/3 of the company. At a certain point, it was this lack of control that ended Steve’s position at Apple. This happens over and over again to founders so be ready for it. Be indispensable to your company.

Overselling is nothing without delivering. Jobs delivered 50 motherboards to Terrell who immediately critiqued how they weren’t packaged products. Jobs countered by saying that Terrell could move more inventory by selling to hobbyists because he had all the components in shop, therefore he could make money. Without that quick counter, Apple would have ended as soon as it started. They under-delivered to their first customer. Terrell had taught them a lesson: customers only care about the final product and how simple and accessible it is to use.

4. Hiring is your worst mistake

There were two hiring mistakes in the movie. The first came from Steve’s best friend, Daniel Kottke. When hiring, there are numerous things to consider. The first is if new hires can create value for the company, the second is if they mesh with the team, the third is if they can adapt and learn, and the fourth is if they share the same values as the company. The movie portrayed that Kottke was only friends with Jobs and lacked the skills to adapt as Apple grew. Although the movie took some liberties, the story is generally true.

The second hiring mistake was John Sculley, the former CEO of Pepsi-Cola and a proclaimed “marketing-genius.” Seeking to augment Apple’s marketing department, Jobs hired Sculley, who had great success with Pepsi’s brand in the late 70s. Sculley did not directly fire Jobs, but let the board axe him after the Lisa failed and the Mac did not produce the numbers they expected. Sculley was more focused on immediate gratification and revenue rather than long-term outcomes. When picking a CEO, you not only need someone who is a good executor, but someone who aligns with the core ideals of the company. Sculley bent to the will of the board instead of embracing the ideals of “thinking different.”

5. Relationships or business. Choose one.

A recent article caused an uproar among the entrepreneurial community. In it, the author states that entrepreneurs cannot have relationships. Steve Jobs is a perfect example of this. In the movie, he left his pregnant girlfriend and disregarded former friends, all in the pursuit of Apple. A start-up takes up your attention and, in order to be successful, you need perseverance in order to make your idea come to fruition. Relationships may pose as distractions when there are one-hundred-hour work weeks. That is why it is much easier to start a business when you are young. You have the energy and limited attachments; you can afford to be thrifty and frugal without others to count on you.

If you ever become a CEO, it will become even more difficult. Many founders are divorced because their startup is all-consuming. A relationship is a balancing act that is very difficult to keep steady during the tumultuous first months of a start-up. Also, if friends are working in your company, your relationship is fundamentally changed. It’s lonely at the top, and emotions cannot cloud decisions made for the good of the company.

6. Heart over talent

Emotions run high at many points in “Jobs.” The love that he poured into Apple is felt throughout the movie. Steve was the company, the company was Steve. Without that love of the values that Apple espoused, there would be no Mac, iPod, or iPhone.

There is a scene in the movie where Steve goes around recruiting for the Mac team. He seeks out not the technical best, but the ones who really care. The team goes on tours of art museums, nature walks, and works with determination and attention to detail because the product is an extension of themselves. The Mac team is an example of how a group can transcend the sum of its parts to become something truly incredible.

7. Every detail matters

Let me repeat that. Every. Detail. Matters. It is not the overall product that the customer remembers, but the little experiences that go with it. The Mac team had this incorporated in its DNA. Only take projects at which that you can excel. Always produce terrific work. This means that you should say no to 99% of the things that come to you. For that 1%, hit it out of the park by crafting delightful user experiences that change the way people interact with the world.

The first thing that Steve Jobs did when he returned to Apple as CEO is to cut all the projects that weren’t innovating. They were the projects that were clones of what other companies were doing, projects that were focused on product, not user experience.

One of the first lessons to learn as an entrepreneur is to start a business because it is different. The second is to build experiences into your designs so customers always come back.

8. Go for needs not sales

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” ~S.J.

Steve led his company like Wayne Gretzky, always going to the open spot, where the next big play was going to be. The Mac was years ahead of its time. The iPod revolutionized the music industry. I’m not even going to talk about the repercussions of the iPhone.

Jobs excelled in his ability to find the need of the customer, the root of the problem, the “pain point.” He then created with simplicity in mind, taking from Braun designer Dieter Rams to make a blank canvas for customers to interact with and imbue personality into. Apple’s products are beautiful because that is what users needed even before they knew they needed it. This attention to need has enabled Apple to develop products that are years ahead of its time and to rightfully hold the spot as the number one computer company in the world.

9. Absolute focus and adaptability

It’s a long way to the top. The only way to get there is with unyielding drive. Steve was a very direct person. He got straight to the point and wasn’t afraid to cut through bullshit. As Woz said: “Steve doesn’t like foreplay.” Jobs had a single-minded determination to carry out a project. He’d forgo relationships, food, and sleep in order to finish. Entrepreneurs would do well to take from his example.

Steve also had a diverse skill-set. He understood many things at a moderate level, which allowed him to communicate clearly and effectively with all sorts of people and employees. At different points he was an engineer, artist, manager, salesman, and advertiser. As an entrepreneur you must be able to learn quickly and do what ever job is necessary. Steve Jobs threw his entire being into his work and it showed.


We can all take value from the life that Steve Jobs lived. His legacy lives on in Apple and in the numerous products he produced while working there. The film ends on the cusp of his success with the iPod, and shows the culmination of all the lessons he learned during his lifetime. I would recommend any aspiring entrepreneur to see the movie to discover how Apple became synonymous with innovation.



Elliot Roth is a Junior in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University. His interests are myriad and include slam poetry, music, international jewel thievery, being an EMT, and writing incredible articles as a Student Ambassador. You can reach him at and follow him on twitter @rothet.

The Art of Positive Presentation

… For Prezis, Interviews, Team Calls, and more!

By Blake Marggraff

Note: These thoughts and stories, and whatever messages or lessons they may convey, are not limited to the experiences of University Innovation Fellows. Perhaps one of the most significant strengths of the Fellows program is its ability to quite accurately simulate student entrepreneurship; the two terms are not mutually exclusive!

Before we dive into these useful and immediately applicable tips, I’d like to point out an intentional wording choice: I use “presentation” instead of “communication.” I believe that communication, while often benefiting from a positive style, need not be constantly soaked with positivity as so many self-help experts would have you believe. Presenting, on the other hand, almost universally occurs in order to promote an idea, convert an observer, or express a point of view.

With this in mind, let’s dive into some simple, helpful pointers that you can apply right after reading! Woohoo!


?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????This is nothing groundbreaking, but wording during verbal presentation has a tremendous bearing on how the presentation is received. Almost always, positive words and phrases foster the strongest connection and, thus, greatest bandwidth between presenter and audience. I break down my thought process before and during a presentation into three discrete parts:

Part 1: Pick your notch. Are you going for ultra-peppy, or subtly enthused? No need to figure out which words you’re specifically going to use; just decide and internalize the right level of positivity.

Part 2: Avoid “downer” words. Following is the simplest chart in the world. When you’re about to use a word or phrase from the left, try, just try, swapping it out with its positive relative on the right.

Negative “downer” words

Positive “friendly” words











Sure, there are plenty of cases where “however” is harmless and “theirs” is requisite, although I would surmise that such cases aren’t as frequent as you suspect. In short, the friendlier the wording, the warmer (and more successful) the presentation.

Part 3: Use the appropriate level of complexity. Sometimes, as you might guess, my complexity of communication (oh, okay, “wordiness”) can get away from me. While this might not be something everyone keeps in mind, I always remind myself to stick with a professional, but not intimidating, speaking style. Needless to say, this style varies from one audience to another, although once my sentences begin to fade into short essays, I know it’s time to reign myself in.

Body Language

Part 1: Mirror your audience. Most readers will recognize the technique of mirroring, in which one communicating party acts and speaks similarly to his or her audience. Did you know that you can do the same thing during phone calls, video conferences, and real-life presentations? The trick is understanding that mirroring works both ways, such that if you “mirror” a desired reflection, the observer will likely begin to “reflect” that action! This is my favorite way to involve bored, zoned-out audience members. I once transformed a student in the fourth row from a half-asleep zombie to an edge-of-his-seat audience member, just by making eye contact, smiling broadly, raising my eyebrows, and leaning further forward myself! (Good thing I wasn’t too close to the edge of the stage…)

Part 2: Learn (and practice) the Neutral Position. This is another basic, oft-cited tip, but it surprises me how slowly many new presenters and speakers adopt it. From your very first presentation, using the neutral position will do two things: it will help you relax, and it will make your audience feel more comfortable watching you. Here’s how to do it:

Good body language

Bad body language

  • Hands comfortably at your sides! None of this hands-in-pockets, wrap them around your chest, try to look like a shirt model bologne.

  • Shoulder-width stance, with slightly more weight on one foot than the other. Nobody wants to watch you stand at attention the whole time. Don’t pace or “wobble” from one leg to another.

  • When you use your arms to gesture, make sure you flow with them. Don’t just keep your elbows bent the whole time. And, for the sanity of all of us audience members in the world, do NOT shake the webcam if you’re presenting during a presentation! It never fails to amaze me that otherwise savvy presenters think they can really emphasize a point by strangling their poor monitor and attached camera.

Part 3: Record yourself. Then do it again. And again. And again. And again. A mentor once told me that before every presentation, he forces himself to run through the speech and associated materials no fewer than 20 times. I chuckled, thinking, “Oh, the poor sap. It must just not come naturally to him.” Well, I’ll concede that I find 10 rehearsals a bit superfluous, but there’s no doubt that I improve with every single run-through. I highly recommend catching yourself on video once or twice, and certainly listen to an audio recording. Put yourself in the shoes of your “captive” audience, be it listeners on a conference call or 2,000 elementary school students in an enormous auditorium. One caveat: please, don’t memorize your speech. Get the bullet points, then find enough ways to say them comfortably that you can fluidly transition from one phrase to the next. Punchy conclusions, witty one-liners, and short, intentionally repeated phrases are the only exceptions. Not memorizing will also help you stay engaged, and at the end of the day, everyone will be better off for it.

What’s your experience as a student leader? Post your comments below…

IMG_9202Blake Marggraff is a University Innovation Fellow and currently a sophomore and Biochemistry major at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is enjoying a life of academics, multiple business ventures, and the occasional hiking or camping trip. Prior to attending Washington University, Blake won the top award at Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair with a project that used pegylated tin to augment the efficacy of radiation therapy for treatment of simulated cancer cells with low to mid-energy X-ray sources. Blake’s enthusiasm for entrepreneurship began with his success in numerous public speaking competitions, and was furthered by his work as a leader of local National Youth Leadership Training courses. Looking toward the future, Blake intends to help shape the bioethics and consumer biotechnology industries, while inspiring peers to engage in entrepreneurship. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Three Critical Remote Leadership Skills I Learned as a University Innovation Fellow

Three Critical Remote Leadership Skills I Learned as a University Innovation Fellow

(Useful, since my cofounder lives 500 miles away!)

By Blake Margraff

Note: These thoughts and stories, and whatever messages or lessons they may convey, are not limited to the experiences of University Innovation Fellows (formerly Student Ambassadors Program). Perhaps one of the most significant strengths of the University Innovation Fellowship is its ability to quite accurately simulate student entrepreneurship; the two are not mutually exclusive!

Part I: Accessibility keeps a team transparent and energized (as long as you have well-established limits!)

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????During my trip to the Stanford following the University Innovation Fellow training, I remember Elliot Roth (read his articles!) turning to me and excitedly saying, “I love it when my team sends me emails.” This simple statement is more profound than it might seem at first. Elliot, a strong leader and budding entrepreneur, inadvertently hit upon one of the most important pillars of remote leadership: keep yourself accessible! By receiving and (if necessary) acting upon the emails we receive, leading a team suddenly becomes quite rewarding, even invigorating, and the benefit is mirrored right back onto the team itself.

However, as with most habits, accessibility in moderation is the best bet. If you’re getting calls and “urgent” emails in the wee hours of the morning on a daily basis, the simple solution is to establish working hours. Mine are from 7:30am to 11:00pm in whatever time zone I’m currently living. I can hear it now: “Blake, you crazy fool, I’ll never receive that many emails! And certainly not at those hours!” My only advice–wait and watch. As you pursue more exciting and intense projects and even companies, you’ll need to balance new parameters within your life. On that note, a few tips!

Three tips to make it happen:
1. Understand your smartphone’s “notifications” settings. Many a missed Skype call can be chalked up to the wrong alert preference. Other side of the coin, turn off your damn social alerts, especially Facebook and Snapchat; they’re timesucks (on which I’ll write another article).
2. Create an Office Hours chart for you and your team, in which everyone can simply list his or her free hours every week. It’s a pretty great feeling to be able to call up a cofounder in another state knowing that he’s probably free to chat!
3. Share your calendar with free/busy visibility (here’s how), and turn your phone on (and off) when you’ve said you will!

Part II: Timeliness becomes vital, tardiness becomes inexcusable

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????When you’re the only person within hundreds of miles working on (or even leading) a project, an uncanny sensation of surrealism can sometimes sneak up on you. This, at least, has been my experience, particularly during my first startup. One cofounder was in California, another in Illinois, and there I was, out on the east side of Missouri all by my lonesome! I learned very quickly that the only way to keep the team together was through frequent communication. Perhaps surprisingly, setting up calls and shooting emails back and forth wasn’t too tricky. One of the most difficult part each week’s call, aside from agreeing upon strong, SMART goals, was getting everybody on the call and underway each time, on time.

As soon as I noticed what was happening, I did something that I firmly believe everyone leading a team call or videochat should do: start the call with a quick, 30-second update from everyone on the call. People enjoy talking about their own work, and the shame of missing your update is quite a motivator. I also started to insert calendar invites in any email related to scheduling, and soon, the whole team caught on and communicated much more effectively.

Three tips to make it happen:
1. Use your technology. Set reminders, become familiar with the calendar applications on your phone and computer. I have a default reminder set for 15 minutes prior to every event that’s helped me not miss many a business call.
2. Insert a calendar invite directly into any schedule-related email! This helps avoid the “I didn’t know we had a call!” excuse, and automatically corrects for time-zone confusion.
3. Start with a 30-second update from everyone on the team. Everyone likes to share personal progress, and nobody wants to the “the one who missed out.”

Part III: Message-crafting is an art worth mastering, and is most powerful when combined with careful listening

webexshotThe story for this section is short and to-the-point. Back during my second Prezi presentation to the other University Innovation Fellow candidates and NCIIA leadership (a.k.a. Humera), I knew from the beginning that my Prezi was not the fanciest, most beautiful thing I’d ever created. With that in mind, I spent the half hour leading up to the call crafting my message instead of simply focusing on adding bells and whistles to a rather skeletal visual presentation. By picking the right words (“and,” “also,” “we,” “ours,” instead of “but,” “however,” “they,” “theirs”), and deciding what exactly you want to convey, even a quick 2-4 minute presentation can become punctuated with positive phrases, enjoyable articulation, and emotionally evocative messages.

Three tips to make it happen:
1. Pick a [real] message! You know you’ve gone too far when you’re rambling on about your dog’s recent bout of food poisoning, but sometimes presenters get off track without seeming to realize they’ve done so. If your message is “my school needs a physical space for innovation and creativity,” jot it down on a notecard and glance at that card every half minute.
2. Know your audience. This is the most basic one in the book. If you’re talking to students, keep the discussion student-centric. Kindergarteners and PhDs, on the other hand, will require unique (and respectively different) styles of communication.
3. Spark a dialogue when possible, if you’re comfortable with that format of communication. Making one’s self the moderator of a positive, productive discussion is a very rewarding and efficient way to convey ideas.

What’s your experience as a student leader? Post your comments below…


Blake Marggraff is a University Innovation Fellow and currently a sophomore and Biochemistry major at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is enjoying a life of academics, multiple business ventures, and the occasional hiking or camping trip. Prior to attending Washington University, Blake won the top award at Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair with a project that used pegylated tin to augment the efficacy of radiation therapy for treatment of simulated cancer cells with low to mid-energy X-ray sources. Blake’s enthusiasm for entrepreneurship began with his success in numerous public speaking competitions, and was furthered by his work as a leader of local National Youth Leadership Training courses. Looking toward the future, Blake intends to help shape the bioethics and consumer biotechnology industries, while inspiring peers to engage in entrepreneurship. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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

By Sean Newman Maroni


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

“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,, 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


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, and can be found writing about the amplification of human potential at

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.


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.


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.


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, and can be found writing about the amplification of human potential at

Innovation at Berkeley

Fung Institute Berkeley Engineering

There is a lot of interesting things going on currently at Cal, as we affectionately call it. Innovation and entrepreneurship have found a resurgence on campus. There is a new one-year engineering professional master’s degree on campus, beginning this semester at the Fung Institute. This program is designed to educate a new type of engineer, one with leadership skills and the outlook of a global citizen. What makes this program interesting is its multidisciplinary cohort and the integration of a two semester long capstone project. We have been told that students will learn new approaches to creativity that go beyond traditional engineering boundaries. We stand on anticipatory tip-toe to see the kinds of projects that emerges from the inaugural cohort.