SVP Advisor Profile: Keith Hopper
The Blank Center is delighted that Keith Hopper is part of the 2017 Summer Venture Program team as an advisor for the second consecutive year! Keith is an invaluable resource to the Boston startup community and the SVP teams. We recently chatted about how being an advisor for SVP differs from typical mentor relationships and what he hopes the teams get out of the program this year.
What is your role in the Summer Venture Program and within the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Boston?
This will be my second year as an advisor for SVP and I have served as a mentor for Techstars in Boston for five years. I have also formally advised several companies on product and understanding the market. At Olin College of Engineering, I am an entrepreneur-in-residence, helping students identify and work through the early stages of new product and business development.
What is the entrepreneurship scene at Olin College like?
Because Olin is a small school with only 350 undergraduate students, it doesn’t have the same entrepreneurial footprint as other schools- it is really unique. One of Olin’s founding principles involved entrepreneurship, so there is an interesting blend of entrepreneurially ambitious students and many more that have an entrepreneurial mindset. There is a small student-run group called the Foundry which promotes entrepreneurship on campus. Olin students are constantly exploring and bringing new things into the world. Many aspects of entrepreneurship run through the students and school itself. In the last year particularly, there has been a great amount of startup energy. Two Olin teams will be participating in this year’s Summer Venture Program!
How would you describe your experience with the Summer Venture Program last year?
It was great. Being an advisor for SVP is different than how I had imagined it. Generally, mentors are “light touch” and meet with companies for an hour every week or two to provide advice and connections. At SVP, advisors play a much more engaged role. They touch all aspects of the business, solve problems by rolling up their sleeves, and instead of just providing connections, they make physical introductions. There is more depth to the relationship, even including emotional and general support for the entrepreneurs- something that is not often found in a mentor relationship. You feel more involved and like a part of the business. It is very rewarding to be engaged so deeply with the companies and help them through this exciting time.
What excites you about the Summer Venture Program?
The most exciting aspect of working with the program is watching the entrepreneurs transform not only the business but also their thought processes. With early stage teams and an accelerator that serves as a crucible, you see a lot of cognitive shifts. Many of these shifts orient around how the students think about starting companies. At Techstars, the companies are generally further along and are outside of the academic safety net, so they have already gone through many of these shifts. At Babson, there is a lot of raw material and bigger volatility- in a good way!
What do you hope the Summer Venture Program teams get out of the program?
A huge shift this year is that the program will be located in Boston. I hope the teams plug into the Boston entrepreneurship ecosystem- something the past teams haven’t had as much access to. I primarily work in the city so I’m excited to bring them into the world I am used to operating in. There are so many benefits other than the obvious connections they will make, including how the teams look at themselves, even unconsciously. When you work on an academic campus, starting a business can feel like an extension of your academics. Being surrounded by other companies who don’t see themselves that way will help the SVP teams experience an identity shift and see this outside the context of school. It will really help them leap forward.
In addition, David Chang, this year’s program director, is amazing. His perspective, support, and basic re-engineering of the program will be really positive. I’m excited to see what happens with the program. I am also excited about the teams! I have only met them briefly but they are a fantastic batch. There is a wide spectrum of industries, where the businesses are in their life cycles, and diversity of founders. It’s as it should be!
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
An entrepreneur is someone who brings new things into the world and they stick. Looking at it that way, we are all entrepreneurs. You have to understand needs and identify customers regardless of whether you are working on a physical product or an idea. You’re always bringing new things into the world. Entrepreneurs must be compelling, understand markets, have a network, and design solutions.
I helped design the required entrepreneurship undergraduate course at Olin College. Some students are reluctant about entrepreneurship, so we realized that the best way to teach entrepreneurship is to think about it differently. The class was designed to emphasize that even people working for existing companies must be creative and that entrepreneurial skills are important everywhere.
What does the world need from entrepreneurs today?
The world needs everyone to think like an entrepreneur. There are enormous opportunities based on the speed of technology and the pervasiveness of communication. The world needs people to have ambition and think about what they can introduce to the world. This is not only about novelty- it also takes creativity to put tried and true solutions into place. Incremental changes, when looked at as an aggregate, can change the world. If we all looked at the things we do as opportunities to change the world in big and small ways, in places we may not expect, we would push ourselves to be more ambitious, creative, and connected.
Do you have any tips for entrepreneurs?
When I started working with startups, I realized there are two types of entrepreneurs. One is open to suggestions and the other shows a lot of resistance. Entrepreneurs need to be more open-minded and willing to learn from others. This includes listening not only to advisors but also to customers. Humility is a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs, but they also should be able to speak for themselves and make decisions. My advice is to have a vision and be confident in your decisions, but also to be open to learning. While this seems contradictory, the companies that grasp both of these concepts are extremely successful. Recognize that these conditions exist and work to embrace both of them.
What do you do for fun?
Work with startups! I’m only partially kidding. Mentoring doesn’t pay, but it is rewarding to work with the next generation of entrepreneurs. I have seven-year-old twin boys and we love the water. I like to sail, play with them, and help them pursue their own entrepreneurial ambitions. I also play music.
Describe yourself in four words.
Visionary idealist, operational skeptic. I get really excited about great ideas, but I am highly skeptical about people’s implementation plans. The best approach is usually not the first one they think of!
Anything else people should know?
A phrase I particularly enjoy is “strong opinions loosely held.” This is a framework for looking at the world that I get excited about when people have. These people come at problems with conviction and passion but when confronted with new evidence, are quick to absorb the new information and extend their world view. This is less about completely switching opinions than about the importance of nuance and understanding that we all have limited information about the world. When our knowledge base grows, we can think differently. Accept that you do not know everything and be open to letting new information change and direct you.