Faculty & Leadership Blog / Innovative Curriculum

Architecting a New Trajectory for Entrepreneurial Leadership

Babson College has gained great success under the assumption that entrepreneurship is the formula for vibrant economies and rewarding careers for citizens. With its focus on entrepreneurial education, Babson has also received much recognition for its impact on student learning and educational outcomes. It has been ranked both for the value it provides and the curriculum it implements. Many famous entrepreneurs and ideas have emerged from its Wellesley, MA campus.  In addition to being a recognized location for studying entrepreneurship, Babson has also influenced entrepreneurial education in other institutions around the world.

It is now time to think about the next act. While the foundational beliefs around entrepreneurship continue to remain the same, the infrastructure and tools at the entrepreneur’s disposal have evolved significantly in recent years. Many of the core beliefs around entrepreneurship and pedagogy are deeply ingrained in Babson’s ecosystem and continue to be relevant today. A major change, however, has been in the technology environment and the arrival of digital products and services. It is our belief that Babson needs to continue to evolve in a systematic manner to capitalize on this development.

In the last 15 years, Internet giants have built platforms or utilities on top of the Internet and this is changing the pace of innovation. For instance, Amazon has created a cloud services business that is based on its infrastructure and processes that enables established firms and startups to rent their IT infrastructures and processes from Amazon. Amazon, because of its e-commerce business, has built a robust infrastructure that can handle heavy demand and has the spare capacity to let others use it.  In addition to their infrastructure needs, companies can also rent their applications on-demand from companies like Microsoft, Salesforce.com, Workday, Hubspot, Yammer, Dropbox, Basecamp and others.

With these developments the digital transformation age is upon us and it is now the time for entrepreneurs who are questioning all aspects of current business models and creating brand new ones. This new-age entrepreneur is a person who knows how to selectively use the modern digital infrastructure and tools to transform existing businesses or conceive and build new ones. It is through the mastery of digital technologies that the modern entrepreneur can test ideas fast and reliably, thus accelerating the pace of innovation, launching new products and services, adapting to shifting market conditions quicker than competitors.

Digital transformation is catalyzed by a type of knowledge worker that we refer to as a digital innovator. These digital innovators use the modern day infrastructure as Lego-like building blocks to build novel and interesting new products and services. Take a company like Airbnb. Airbnb has identified that there is variability in supply and demand for lodging services and created a platform for accommodation-seekers and accommodation-providers to find one another. Airbnb uses the smart phone and its location information to get customer information, uses existing payment platforms, and Amazon Web Services for its infrastructure needs. The magic building blocks that Airbnb adds are a tool for matching and spot pricing and the data it collects on all participants in its ecosystem. By empowering renters and seekers with relevant data conveniently delivered through the smartphone, Airbnb is disrupting the entire travel industry. But it will not stop there. It has now partnered with third-parties like American Express, Nest, Tesla and KLM Airlines to provide their customers with more value-added services.

What should educational institutions do?

Schools take three different approaches to training students for the digital age. Most schools think of IT and digital technology as providing back office support to an entrepreneur. As a result, some entrepreneurs think of IT as a “necessary evil.” These entrepreneurs hire third parties to help them with IT and never make it part of their core business.

A second set of schools focus just on information goods and think of IT as the product. Thus they develop software to support organizational needs. These entrepreneurs have an engineering background and schools that support this approach have strong engineering departments. Given their capabilities, entrepreneurs take a “do-it-yourself” or DIY approach to building products.

A third way is to think of IT as the interface to a product or service. These entrepreneurs are digital transformers that interact with all their stakeholders using the IT interface. The new way is to rethink the nature of engagement with their stakeholders and design new business models that disrupt the incumbents. This idea of using information technology to question, change and experiment with all channels of stakeholder engagement is what we refer to as digital transformation.

Take, for example, Uber. While Uber is, at its core, an idea for transportation, Travis Kalanick decided to build a software platform to accomplish his goals. Businesses like Uber, Airbnb, and others are born on the internet and use the infrastructure to scale and grow. For entrepreneurs to generate ideas that use the power of the internet and software services, students must be exposed to these infrastructure facilities and tools as early as possible.

Three important levers will move Babson towards producing more digital innovators:

Revised Curriculum
A key question facing every department at Babson is the balance between concepts and skills across all its courses. Digitization has its impact on all aspects of a business and thereby on every department that teaches foundational concepts at Babson. Some courses can continue to be conceptual and students can learn digital implications by participating in lab sessions. The other approach is to introduce digital tools in every class and show students how they impact capability development and competitive strategy.

Establish a Playground for Technology Infrastructure (Design Lab)
With a core group of faculty members engaged in research on design thinking, we are developing original content on the subject. To support the integration of digital tools in all, or at least most, classes, requires a setting in which students can take ownership and learn by doing.  This mode of learning requires the appropriate modern infrastructure.  This infrastructure consists of flexible teaching and student work spaces, equipped with both physical and digital tools (e.g., sensors and platforms for IoT projects).  The Design Lab, which will be launched later this summer, has so far built some physical space (e.g., Design Zone 125) but will require expansion in both size and equipment.

When complete, the Design Lab will be a hub where Babson faculty, students, external experts, and engineering students can collaboratively implement ideas and learn. The goal is to provide our students with an immersive learning experience in which they can access and apply relevant tools. They range from physical tools to create, for example wearables, to software and server space as services over the internet. It is our hope that some of the ideas generated in this Lab will be moved over to the accelerator to test their business viability.

Refreshing the Accelerator Workshops and Ecosystem
Another ’learning lab’ on campus for entrepreneurs is the Butler Venture Accelerator (BVA) where students explore and develop their early business concepts.  Each year, hundreds of participants take advantage of various programs, workshops, expert advisers, and peer mentoring to move their nascent ventures toward launch.

Today, too, the BVA is changing.  A marketplace that values IT as the interface to building products and products and services requires us to incorporate that into our business models and venture building programs.  As such, the BVA is moving towards a nucleus with co-curricular activities that help nascent student entrepreneurs leverage digital innovation in their ventures.  Participants in the BVA won’t become engineers, but through our programs and workshops they will be equipped to use technology to transform their ideas into businesses that disrupt the status quo.

Investing across these three fronts will move Babson and its entrepreneurs to think about and create many more digital enterprises. The digital future is here. At Babson we are busy at work preparing our entrepreneurs for the digital era and keeping Babson as the preeminent college for entrepreneurship well into the 21st century.

Article co-written with Andrew Corbett and Sebastian Fixson; Originally published on LinkedIn.