Cracking Open the Red Bull: Entrepreneurialism in Higher Education
Hanging on my office wall is a colorful Warhol-esque portrait. But where we would expect to see an iconic celebrity like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis, there is instead an icon of a different kind: a can of Red Bull. Energy, velocity, achievement, action—these are all things we associate with the energy drink brand.
Why don’t we associate those same ideas with higher education?
More than ever, it seems that the value of higher education is questioned while the role of entrepreneurs is lionized. The Thiel Fellowships, founded by successful entrepreneur Peter Thiel, proposed to give 20 fellowships for young entrepreneurs to skip college altogether and develop their own ideas. Thiel’s notion that “Some ideas just can’t wait” seemed squarely at odds with higher education, creating a persistent narrative that higher ed discourages potential entrepreneurs with unnecessary hoops and red tape.
But what about entrepreneurship within the institution of higher education itself? It is understandable why skeptics would roll their eyes at this very idea. Because the fact is, the entrepreneurial gap that they often point to is real. The problem rests squarely in university administrative structures and functions: namely, the leaders (VP’s, provosts, deans, directors and others) of administrative offices of universities across the country.
These vast, complex areas that encompass teaching, learning, student support, research, facilities and business functions are critical to the long-term strategic objectives of universities. And yet, in most instances they reflect the most traditional, bureaucratic and risk-averse areas of higher education. While research faculty are pursuing the frontiers of knowledge and students are developing apps and other tools to improve their lives, most administrative structures have continued to function unchanged for decades. Why?
This structural dissonance fuels internal and external pressures on campuses. Internally, both students and faculty are frequently frustrated by the slow pace of change. Externally, higher education is seen to be in dire need of adopting business practices for its own good. Yes, there are lots of legitimate reasons for administrative sluggishness—multiple and competing constituent needs create tension in decision making; decentralized, siloed reporting structures, etc. However, those of us seeking to inject some Red Bull into our culture and truly nurture an entrepreneurial spirit cannot afford to let potential risk be an idea-stopper. We must evolve.
When an idea first crosses their desks many administrators employ traditional tools—task forces, committees, multiple levels of review, etc. And in the end, while these may mitigate some risk, or even improve an original idea through broader input, they very often drain or kill the entrepreneurial approach, which thrives on creativity, new ideas, and the ability to move quickly. Fueling an entrepreneurial spirit leads to a more competitive, enterprising, and effective organization in higher education—one that is more responsive and focused on eliminating problems.
Administrators often feel concerned about setting a negative precedent or lowering standards when faced with change or new ideas. And while this sense of fidelity to higher standards certainly has its place in higher education, it often comes at the expense of entrepreneurship. How many levels of approval are actually necessary for most actions? Universities must be among the few organizations that have entire offices dedicated to honoring and maintaining the past. This reverberating reverence for the past sometimes masks the need for higher education to move quickly and to update or abandon processes that have, frankly, outlived their usefulness.
I oversee a large administrative area, one that includes teaching, learning, technology, student support and auxiliary functions and we compete in a competitive market. Sadly, I have seen many good ideas find early graves because they became entangled in process. As a result, I am passionate about leading an organization that is agile, smart, creative and, in fact entrepreneurial! I have learned over time that your culture either supports or inhibits entrepreneurialism, so I work hard to build an environment that cultivates and breeds success. So what is the “secret sauce” to developing and nurturing an entrepreneurial culture?
1. Optimistic leadership: Leaders must set a tone of possibility and potential and “yes.” Diminished resources, while real, must be seen as an opportunity to rethink how we do what we do or to seek multiple investors, rather than stopping progress.
2. Open mindedness: Do not respond to a good idea with “how much will this cost?” First seek to understand what will be achieved and then work through the budget.
3. Foster intelligent risk: At the University of Arizona, we are known for implementing building blocks of ideas or short term “pilot” projects simply to manage expectations and create an environment where staff want to try something new.
4. Move quickly and be responsive: Administrators are known for slow decision making and responsiveness. We work hard to respond quickly and move into production before an original idea loses its spark.
5. Check the environment: Encourage staff to engage with the outside world and connect the dots in experiences to help understand the current and future environment. Anticipate what students will need tomorrow, not today; watch what high school and middle school students are doing; pay attention to where people meet, how they receive information and all other parts of the human experience that should inform our work.
6. Build a great team: Hire smart people and provide clear expectations and support. Team members must be comfortable with a faster than normal pace. Safety in taking risks will only happen if the team knows that leadership has their back.
7. Share your victories: Tout successes and convey them in the context of broad visionary goals. Create a culture of momentum, velocity, and relevance and be strategic and energetic in communication.
8. Be aware of the limits: Understand what we can control and influence and work in that environment. Avoid broad issues that suck resources and spirit and cannot be impacted by our work.
9. Keep goals top of mind: Make sure that goals are clearly visible and continually revisited. Inspire and reward faculty and staff who contribute uniquely to achieving these goals.
What is the result of this approach? Entrepreneurial innovation in higher education; increased opportunities for students to succeed; better, more timely support for internal and external constituencies; a more rewarding workplace (and yes, plenty of Red Bull cans in the office).