I always had a master plan growing up: my brother, the engineering-minded sibling, would be the inventor, and I, the business-oriented sibling, would make it the next big thing. We’d lay outside, trying to ease our summer boredom, and think to ourselves how we could possibly invent our next big thing – bubble travel. At the time, it seemed like an amazing idea. Bubble travel was a safer, environmentally friendly, and more fun solution to the morning traffic we despised. Although the technology clearly needed time and work, little did I know that years later, in a classroom in Fuqua, I would realize that I had been thinking about innovation and entrepreneurship the wrong way.
“Simply dedicate yourself to solving problems. It’s solving problems that matters.” – Scott Berkun
One of the core concepts at the heart of the I&E Keystone class is the idea that successful entrepreneurs always think about the problem, rather than the solution. Although I thought our young bubble travel brainchild was brilliant, it failed to solve a real problem people faced, as it was all about the shiny new innovation we wanted to create. By reading and analyzing over a half dozen case studies of different successful and failed entrepreneurial ventures, we learned the fundamental importance of this central concept. On one end of the spectrum, we saw Rent the Runway, which solved the problem of having to buy a new expensive dress for an event which you would only wear once by creating an online designer clothing and accessories service. From several thorough rounds of beta testing, the founders were able to validate that their innovation met the needs of many women. Fast forwarding to today, Rent the Runway has become a profitable enterprise and a brand name that many college and working-age women recognize. However, on the lower end of the spectrum, we read about a start-up airline called Florida Air which failed to run beta testing, inquire for expert advice, notice red flags, or identify whether their idea fit a true need or problem in the market. As expected, they are no longer in business today. Both of these cases viewed in conjunction emphasize the importance of keeping a flexible mindset open to new ideas, as well as the importance of testing, seeking expert advice, and having a strong and collaborative team.
Although I learned many new technical skills this semester, including how to interpret and build financial statements, valuation, and marketing metrics, one of the most influential aspects of the course was having to work with two very different teams. Due to the fact that the majority of our assignments were team-based, we were forced to meet in person and really get to know our group. On a campus which can seem particularly large at times, I enjoyed this exercise as I got to know a few more friendly faces. Above all else, however, I learned a great deal about how to navigate certain different group dynamics. My first group was composed of people with extremely similar personalities to my own, which made it easy and comfortable to work collaboratively on the projects. From the very start of our first meeting together, we made sure to set clear expectations, which kept us efficient and receptive to each other’s suggestions. Although I did not have as great of an experience with my second group as I had with my first, I can say that I learned more from it. Unlike with my first team, we failed to establish expectations at the beginning, and it thus felt as if none of us were on the same page. Both of my teammates had very different personalities and work styles than my own, and I was forced to understand when it was appropriate to be a leader, and when to be a follower. From my own experiences this semester, as well as through our class discussions and case studies, I have realized that a team can make or break a company. Rent the Runway, for example, was founded by two open-minded, inquisitive, and collaborative women, while Florida Air’s team was one formed out of convenience. Understanding what I do now, I firmly believe that a group’s work is greatly influenced by the group dynamic that they choose to foster. For instance, I felt that my first group’s deliverables were naturally much stronger than my second’s since our conversations were full of positive energy and creative ideas. Each of us had our own strengths, such as graphic design or quantitative analysis, which we taught to each other in order to collectively deliver our best product. Knowing now that I work best in collaborative groups with clearly defined expectations will help me along the road in my future career.
Just as knowing the type of work environment you thrive in is important, facilitating an ethical culture is crucial for innovation and entrepreneurship. Although I have never worked at a startup, I believe that the atmosphere which Kathie Amato created in our Keystone class exemplifies this same culture. By facilitating engaging discussion, she made sure that every single person’s voice was heard, benefiting us all. No matter how simple or outlandish the idea, Kathie made sure to listen and always respond positively with acknowledgment. I hope to someday lead with the same positivity and respect that Kathie showed to every one of her students.
On a college campus overflowing with some of the highest achievers in the nation, it is not uncommon to feel nervous about the future, about getting a job, about making a difference in the world. However, taking the Innovation and Entrepreneurship certificate’s Keystone course has truly left me feeling empowered. Although I acknowledge that I have a lot more to learn in the realm of business and entrepreneurship, I now feel that I have a grasp on understanding and analyzing a company’s financial statements, business models, go-to-market plans, customer value propositions, and more. In the near future, I am looking forward to applying this newfound knowledge to more specific electives in the I&E certificate, as well as in my next certificate “experience.” In regard to the distant future, this course has helped shape my long-term career goals and has led me to explore new aspects of business which I hadn’t known existed before… of course, unless bubble travel works out.
For my artifact, I have decided to attach an assignment I completed from one of my mentor conversations.