Teaching an entrepreneurial mindset | clumps now
As director of the Derby Entrepreneurship Center at Tufts, Elaine Chen leads a thriving hub for all things entrepreneurship. She oversees year-round programming that works overtime to reduce barriers to entrepreneurship, whether in the more traditional sense of running a startup or in the broader sense of innovating in any field. A website offers hundreds of articles for self-directed learning, while programs include Jumbo Cafe workshops, alumni networking events, the $100,000 New Business Competition, and summer Tufts Venture Accelerator program for students, recent alumni and members of the Tufts community.
The Center “teaches our students how to bring together their knowledge and curiosity to take that first step towards change related to what excites them,” said Chen, who teaches innovation and entrepreneurship as a family teacher. Cummings from the practice of entrepreneurship.
Chen joined Tufts in the fall of 2020 from MIT, where she was a senior lecturer and entrepreneur-in-residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. A graduate of MIT with two degrees in mechanical engineering, she began her career in tech startups, where her innovation skills led her to hold leadership positions in engineering and product management at the VP level in startups such as Rethink Robotics, Zeo, Zeemote and SensAble Technologies. She has marketed numerous hardware and software products (she holds 22 patents) and is the author of Bringing a hardware product to market: Navigating the mad rush from concept to mass production.
clumps now recently sat down with Chen to talk about what it means to be an entrepreneur today and how Tufts helps students develop the skills and mindset needed to lead change.
clumps now: It seems that 2021 has been a pivotal year for the center : It has a new name, thanks to a generous gift of a former director, and also a new home at the Joyce Cummings Center. Does this signal a new era of entrepreneurship at Tufts?
Elaine Chen: It’s an exciting time. Our identity is more visible, our location closer to the university hub and our aspirations have grown. Our ambition for the Center is to redefine the word entrepreneurship on and off campus and make everyone feel like the entrepreneurial way of working is accessible to them.
I want to offer a touchpoint, or some sort of experience in entrepreneurship education, to anyone who wants it. In the summer of 2022, we will be reaching out to high school students; we are launching a pre-university program with the idea that we can broaden our regional impact. We also plan to reach more graduate students enrolled in residential programs. We want to continue to serve our graduates and keep in touch with them throughout their careers. Forty years from now, I want them to come back to Tufts and share their stories!
Our ambition is simple: whatever your needs, your interests and the time zone you are in, we are here to help you.
How has the pandemic shifted the focus of the entrepreneurial world? Does it bring new challenges, new opportunities?
Absoutely! The pandemic shows the importance of having an entrepreneurial mindset and skills. It highlights the need to be fast and adapt to rapidly changing conditions. Just when you think things are back to normal, you get thrown a curveball. Now, if you have an entrepreneurial way of seeing the world, that’s just another day. You just have to find a way to move forward on a daily basis.
Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen a lot of new businesses. Everyone who has ventured into home fitness has done very well. I know someone who was looking at how difficult it was for people to get a PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans, and then they just started a business to help people get PPP loans.
I think the crisis has reframed not only the way we think about business, but also the way we do business. If you’re an entrepreneur, you may find an opportunity to provide solutions where others might only see frustration and chaos.
What is your advice to the potential entrepreneur in this environment?
The pandemic can be very worrying. Many people are probably feeling very stressed. We see this in a classroom; we see it in the conversation with the students.
My message to them is: you get it. You can find a way forward. Do not be afraid.
There is a quote from [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau from the World Economic Forum several years ago, which I like. He said: “The pace of change has never been faster, but it will never be slower again.” It’ll just keep moving, and that’s a good thing; That’s exciting. Budding innovators and entrepreneurs need to come to terms with the idea that they can figure it out and believe in themselves.
How to define entrepreneurship?
When most people think of the entrepreneur, they think of someone like Elon Musk [CEO of Tesla and SpaceX] and they say, well, it’s not me. It’s not relevant to me. And when they think of entrepreneurship, they think of startups. But that’s a very narrow and overly restrictive definition of the word entrepreneur and the word entrepreneurship.
For me, entrepreneurship is so much more. Entrepreneurship is about a way of thinking and a way of working; it’s a combination of mindset and skills.
In terms of state of mind, it’s innate in everyone. Everyone knows how to learn. It’s the belief that you can figure things out along the way; you can iterate until you get to the right solution. It means you don’t overthink things, fall into analysis paralysis, end up thinking you can cook up the perfect plan. That’s not how the world works.
On the skills side, you need to know how to do primary market research and secondary market research. You need to know how to run a digital marketing campaign and organize a sales force. You need to know how to calculate your unit economy. These are teachable skills. And once they’re combined with the right mindset, you’re well on your way to becoming an entrepreneur.
Our job as educators is to make this mindset and skill learning accessible. We can teach students how to navigate the entrepreneurial process, and if they don’t feel the mindset at first, they learn it. They can learn to be flexible and adaptable.
On that teaching note, the Center’s undergraduate program now attracts over 700 students, and the Entrepreneurship Minor is one of the top choices for undergraduates. You also recently created a minor in social impact entrepreneurship with Tisch College. What do you think of what students expect from entrepreneurship studies?
It’s always exciting to be in a class with them. I teach entrepreneurship 101, and right now my demographic mix of students is 70% liberal arts, 20% engineering school, and then a mix of dutch school students. fine arts museum and other schools.
What I observe is that the students at Tufts are very eager to make changes. They say: I want to make a difference. They care about sustainability, reducing food waste, reducing clothing waste. They care about racial injustice, diversity and civic discourse.
What I hear the most is: how to start? It can seem overwhelming. But if you are given the mindset and the skills, you can reflect on what you can understand, where you have the ability, at your level, to make a difference. Everyone has the power to make small, medium or big changes.
Much of the innovation and entrepreneurship content we offer teaches our students how to bring together their knowledge and curiosity to take that first step towards change related to the things they are passionate about. They don’t need to know where to start; we give them several different ways to explore what entrepreneurship means to them and discover that they can indeed make an impact.
Where is Tufts a leader in generating ideas and entrepreneurial ventures?
Tufts is unique in that it does not have a business school, but it does have a few areas where the university itself is a thought leader. When it comes to social impact, no one else has Tufts’ strengths. Tufts is also particularly strong in health and life sciences, as we have four professional schools in the health sciences.
Finally, an overarching question: why is an entrepreneurship center important to Tufts?
I am convinced of the importance of entrepreneurial thinking; basically, it’s a great life skill that can benefit everyone, and therefore it can amplify your experience of whatever you choose to study here at Tufts. We’re a college-wide resource all about finding out what you’re capable of – and sometimes it might surprise you!
I can relate this to my own career. For a very long time I thought: I have to find a job. It was always the job. Then I started to take ownership of my work experience and realized I could make a difference. I could lead my life. If I needed to make a change, I could do it. That’s really what it means to think like an entrepreneur. An entrepreneurial mindset draws its strength from knowing that you have the agency. How can you say no to that?