An Innovative Education

For the past 375 years, Harvard has produced some of the greatest intellectuals and innovators. In this era of entrepreneurship, how is the tension between thinking and doing changing the landscape of the university?

Sascha Bercovitch, Nicole M. Iacopetti, and Angela C. Li

George C. Ko ’15, aware of his luck and holding tightly to it, is an entrepreneur—a businessman, a dreamer, a musician of sorts. But standing outside of Lamont on a Sunday evening, he does not look much different from the other students who hurry past. He wears a black zip-up hoodie with a Harvard crest on the right sleeve, a heavy backpack hanging dutifully from his shoulders. It’s 5:20 p.m. on the dot, and he’s looking at the shuttle schedule on his phone.

The bus that runs between Soldiers Field and the Yard usually comes by Lamont at this time every week, he says, but when he calls the shuttle service he learns it won’t today: It’s Easter. Ko has some work to do at the Innovation Lab—he’s designing the beta site and functionalities for a multi-platform app, and he has a meeting to prepare for by Friday—so today it looks like he’ll walk.

Ko tries to go to the iLab weekly, but this term, with an even busier course load, it’s been difficult. Last semester he was pulling around three all-nighters a week, and ended up at Starbucks so many times that he accumulated a Gold Card that now earns him free drinks.

Besides serving as director of business development for Politoscape, the start-up that he co-founded, Ko is also part of the Harvard College Piano Society, where he is working to start a program that will bring professional artists to the Harvard community and the greater Boston area. His goal is to graduate from Harvard with an education that extends beyond the library. “I think it’s better to go this way,” he says, crossing the Weeks footbridge, and turning left on Soldiers Field Road.

Past the Business School’s iconic campus—brick buildings and white trim, green lawns and flowering trees—and closer to Allston, Harvard’s nearly six-month-old Innovation Lab sits on the edge of a large, industrial parking lot. Ko swipes in at the front door, entering into the same lobby Mark Zuckerberg toured in November.

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“I can totally understand why people like Bill Gates and Zuck dropped out,” Ko admits, citing the around-the-clock time commitment required to build a company. But the mentors Ko has found among teachers, iLab connections, and other professionals have been trying to the myth of the entrepreneur dropout: the romantic idea that a student must forgo a formal education to become a successful entrepreneur.

The iLab is one of many recent University efforts to encourage and foster student innovation on campus. Five years ago, Fortune Magazine reported that 3,000 colleges and universities had already provided their students with course offerings in entrepreneurship. Most recently, Faust’s inaugural President’s Challenge demonstrated the University’s increased emphasis on student innovation coupled with an undergraduate degree, and hints at the evolving definition of a modern liberal arts education.

I. RELEARNING THE BASICS

A week before Ko crosses the river toward the iLab, Professor Joseph B. Lassiter shuffles through a pile of papers in his large-windowed office at the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship. The papers detail the basic information of the teams that have submitted applications to the President’s Challenge; he’s trying to organize the teams according to the schools from which members of each applicant group come. The sheer number of applications and resources provided by collaboration between schools within the University, he explains, “gives you”—he means students—“a special burden to do ambitious things and pursue them with vigor.”

The contest has attracted over 170 submissions—so many that announcement of the final contestants has been pushed back by over a week to allow for more review. There are more students, it seems, wishing to alleviate one of five social issues proposed, more groups committed to securing the $100,000 award and support offered with the prize, than the application committee was originally prepared to handle. (As of press time the results had not yet been disclosed.)

White-haired and wearing thin-rimmed glasses, Lassiter specializes in entrepreneurial management at the Business School and serves as the Faculty Chair of the iLab (“You’re supposed to rise when you say that,” he jokes).

“Entrepreneurship is not a new thought at Harvard Business School,” he states. After World War II, interest in the study of entrepreneurship intensified as Business School professors debated how to best teach it within a classroom setting. It’s HBS Professor Howard H. Stevenson’s definition of the term that is quoted high on one of the walls at the iLab in greeting: “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources currently controlled.”

For Lassiter, entrepreneurship is an intrinsic component of how we’ve been taught to think. Energetically rolling his desk chair between the table where he sits and his computer, Lassiter recalls having stumbled upon an interesting slide in his third-grade daughter’s eReader. While discussing what she had done at school, he saw a diagram of the scientific method. “It hit me that all I’d seen in [my research] is the scientific process in business application,” he says. “It was this experimental view—this idea of how you design quick experiments so you can adapt and change and discover the nature of a problem—and in the end, that’s what entrepreneurship tries to do.”

What constitute  a real change in entrepreneurship’s significance, however, are the shifting prices and risks associated with “starting up” a new project today, especially those in consumer internet-based sectors. Lassiter cites globalization, shifting global politics, and the opening of different markets as contributing factors to the greater feasibility of innovation in business.

“It’s become much, much less costly to start a business,” he explains. “You can find out very quickly that an idea isn’t worth pursuing.”

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