Nurturing Tomorrow’s Innovators
There are two mantras that echo across the campus of UCF. One is that UCF is “The Partnership University.” Far from being an academic island or ivory tower, UCF has endeavored to link itself with the challenges and the aspirations of the region. Like a multimodal intellectual and talent pipeline, it is making Central Florida a standard for innovation and quality of life through collaboration and cooperation.
It is not just a partnership with industry, regional governments and other academic institutions; within the university, various disciplines are encouraged to build alliances across departmental lines to identify and bring solutions to the pressing problems facing our region.
The other mantra is that “UCF Stands for Opportunity.” It is the opportunity every individual longs for: that his or her life and contribution will make a difference. This desire is not just burning in individuals, but organizations, businesses and regions aim for this same goal. Seeing and seizing opportunities is at the heart of the entrepreneurial spirit and it is something Cameron Ford, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at UCF, has been working to instill in the culture of the university since he arrived.
Ford believes that research universities play a critical role in society. “We are an institution devoted to creating new knowledge. That knowledge can move from our campus and into the society in a number of ways. Entrepreneurship is one way to disseminate knowledge for the benefit of society,” he said. “It is much like research being published, in that respect. However, in the case of entrepreneurship, we develop business models around research projects — whether it is solutions for clean water or better medical products — in hopes that they can be commercialized and reach the users who then benefit from UCF innovations.”
Preparing For the New Environment
Commenting on the changing workforce landscape, Ford observed, “We are also challenged to prepare our students for prosperous lives. When I first graduated, I went to work for IBM, which was still offering the expectation of lifetime employment at that time.”
Students who enter the workforce today will likely change jobs over a dozen times between the ages of 22 and 38. In addition, many top job opportunities today didn’t exist 10 years ago. Now companies have “Social Media Managers,” yet before Facebook launched just a decade ago, there was no “Social Media.”
“Now it is more difficult to determine what job you are preparing people for,” he explained. “Therefore, I believe all students would benefit from entrepreneurial thinking skills, which means understanding how to see problems that exist and thinking about opportunities those problems create. Then, and this is the tricky part, to look at the resources around you and figure out how to reconfigure them for more productive purposes – to deliver solutions to those problems.”
Like teaching someone how to think versus what to think, these skills ensure the individual is productively employed and enjoying a high rate of job satisfaction, regardless of changes or disruptions in the market. “We want our students to be the type of people who are out there looking for problems and trying to figure out how to make things better,” Ford commented. “We believe there are teachable skills that empower people to do that well.”
Another issue is that many of the students entering our colleges and universities have grown up in and watched their parents go through one of the worst economic periods in modern history. It is a small wonder they are open to a different approach or perspective on what a career track should look like.
Ford observed, “The entrepreneurial process is much more transparent today. The show ‘Shark Tank,’ for instance, exposes a broad audience to entrepreneurial methods and students watch it, not just business students, but across the entire spectrum. Popular culture is also bringing the entrepreneurial process to the forefront with movies like, ‘The Social Network’ and ‘Jobs.’ Plus, if students are made aware of it, the labor force is moving towards small- to medium-size enterprises. Large corporations bleed almost one million jobs per year to smaller, more nimble companies. Even large companies that speak to my class tend to emphasize entrepreneurial opportunities where you take initiative and create your own pathways to success.”
Developing an Entrepreneurial Culture
Ford is the founder of most of UCF’s academic entrepreneurship initiatives. UCF’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) seeks to educate and inspire students to become entrepreneurial leaders. The Center is offered by the College of Business Administration to foster a community of innovation and enterprising students from all academic disciplines. Since almost half of Central Florida’s workforce is employed by entrepreneurial firms with fewer than 10 employees, this is an obvious direction for filling the talent pipeline for the future. Large companies also value entrepreneurial leaders who are capable of recognizing opportunities and launching new initiatives. Thus, all careers benefit from entrepreneurial capabilities and the Center works to inspire it in every discipline.
Reflecting on the Center’s goals and his interaction with students, Ford reflected, “It is a privilege to sit with a young person and hear them talk about their ideas and their dreams. I get to watch the very genesis of the entrepreneurial process. After me, they may go to the incubator and years after that, they may be ready for GrowFL. Faculty and advisers like me are often where a student’s journey begins. We are able to watch students grow in confidence, reach out and benefit from the amazing people we have here at UCF and who support us in the community.
“Seeing them grow and become empowered is incredibly rewarding. I have watched lambs turn into lions and even if their ventures don’t succeed, I am convinced they will live much more rewarding and impactful lives as a result of what they’ve learned from engaging these processes.”
Another program offered by the CEL that nurtures the UCF’s entrepreneurial spirit is the Blackstone LaunchPad, led by Ford’s associate director, Pam Hoezle. Located in the student union at the school’s epicenter, its goal is “to acquaint students with the notion that entrepreneurship is a viable career path worth considering and to support student efforts to develop their ideas into viable new venture proposals.” They provide one-on-one coaching, just-in-time resources and daily Startup Seminars Monday throught Friday (many young people prefer the term “starter” to “entrepreneur”).
Students who develop their proposals to the point where they are ready to launch and scale their ventures can apply to the soon-to-open Upstarts Student Venture Accelerator. This new initiative will provide office space, startup resources, and customized mentorship programs to help students take their solutions to market and prepare to grow their ventures with the help of investors.
Ford described the process this way: “I read a paper recently that said entrepreneurial education is much like training musicians. You start with music appreciation, which is this wide open funnel at the outset, where you help people understand and get acquainted with it. Then you offer progressively more engaging and in-depth experiences for them, until in the end you are training virtuosos. It takes a lot of effort, time and patience to support students as they grow from entrepreneurship appreciation to being virtuosos, but we believe that our students and the ventures they create are well worth the investment.”