Observations on Entrepreneurialism, Startups and Education

Normally I write about higher ed and educational technology of some sort. This post is about the startup weekend I attended at Innovation Park, Notre Dame’s entrepreneurial incubator. Bear with me there *is* a connection.

The competition’s finalists all presented evidence of their proposition’s value addition to the marketplace. This included the ideas which, as solutions, were “solutions” to pretty trivial problems in the grand scheme of things. One of the finalists, for example, will be launching a smartphone app which creates a connection between you and the clubs you attend – effectively moving you to the head of long lines and helping you and your friends decide which club to meet up at that evening.

Startup Weekend” is a competition. The organizers are out of Portland and have over a thousand such events under their belts. The teams that form around each idea are teams of volunteers (who’ve paid to participate). I think we can all agree pulling a startup idea out of the oven depends on the characteristics, individual and jointly, of the team surrounding the idea. The same was true of winning the competition – but awkwardly enough, not every team knew this.

My view at the table? I participated on the team that formed around the pitch given by a special ed language arts teacher from Ohio. Faced with the K-12 adoption of the Common Core Standards and the need to provide his less able students with enough drill practice to succeed, at least by the standard measurements, his vision was for a software product he and his peers could use that would map practice activities to the standards to progress reports that teachers and administrators could use. Yep, sounds like where I could make a contribution. More than that, sounded like a winner. As a FIRST Lego League robotics coach, I’m regularly exposed to the hype over STEM subjects, and sure enough, there are companies with the goal of building such a software for the Math standards. For Language Arts? Not so much.  I was excited at how this business proposal was a convergence of many areas in which I have experience, not least of these my degree in Applied Linguistics, experience teaching EFL, and as volunteer tech implementor for my kids’ K-8 school. Very cool.

Startup Weekend included local leaders. They spoke about: Social consciousness. Give-back to the community. What we can do for community development.

Here are the dots I’m connecting –

Conclusions?

  • It’s fairly obvious higher ed will not survive unless we change. We’ve been doing so incrementally: startup weekends, entrepreneurial programs, engineering emphases, interdisciplinary programs, undergrad research angles. Changing traditional brick and mortar schools into something more fluid and flexible is hard.  In many ways we don’t even want to do it. We have our traditions. Time-honored. Founded in #### before the Mayflower. Alumni who send their kids to the school because of the tradition which was so important to them.
  • But find out how your alumi have made their money and perhaps you see that they have become what your institution needs to become.
  • Less formal. More collaborative. Students – Faculty – Administrators – Businesses building something together for now for the institution and for the student to take with them at graduation. Apprenticeships over Internships?
  • Less rigid and traditional. More reconstructive.
  • Let’s model in our own business practice the practices we must teach to the next generation.
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