4 Unlikely Ways University Prepares Students for Entrepreneurship

I recently gave a talk at my alma mater to a group of students eager to learn about entrepreneurship after university. I always relish the chance to engage with students, who are so full of nacent potential and paths not yet traveled. 

I decided to share some of the uncommon lessons of university that I have uncovered over time, thinking back on my experience as an Electrical & Computer Engineering student, and later, as an Internet entrepreneur. Here are a few of my favourite ones, told with some personal stories.

1. Demystifying complexity and learning anything.

I remember a few courses during my degree that had me particularly baffled. For the electrical engineers (like me), it was Signals and Systems. (I recall that for my actuary friends it was Financial Maths and for my accountant friends it was Tax). Faced with the upcoming exam, upon opening the textbook (I wasn’t a big attender of lectures) and seeing what looked like gibberish, a special sense of panic would set in.

Like so many students, I was faced with two choices: accept failure or push through the wall of confusion and learn this subjet. Do whatever it takes. I chose the latter path, forcing myself to read, test, re-read and re-test the textbook material until the subject started to make sense, no matter how alien it seemed to me.

Challenges like this teach students (science students at least) that they have the ability to learn anything; to never shy away from a new subject citing the excuses “it’s too complicated for me” or “I am not familiar with this stuff”. Give a former science student a financial statement, software system model or set of performance data metrics that they have never seen before, and instead of avoiding it, they will know how to invest the energy required to learn, understand, and possibly even master it.

2. Rapid fire document output.

Faced with a never ending torrent of assignments and tutorials, as students we were forced to prioritize our workload. What this resulted in was a high degree of copying going on for the less important items for submission. The method was simple: each person from the group did the tutorial for a different subject, and all of the others creatively copied it (making appropriate adjustments so the crime wasn’t obvious), usually right before submission was required.

The ability to quickly review another piece of work from somewhere else, make appropriate adjustments, and then create something new for their own company is something that entrepreneurs need to do all the time. It isn’t copying so much as respectfully imitating (e.g. a design, report, contract, presentation), and in business it’s considered a skill.

3. Talking the talk (while understanding it).

In my case, I am no longer a software engineer or a formal practitioner of the general field in which I studied (engineering) or subject that I majored in (telecoms). However, I do still work in the business and product side of the tech industry, and interact on a daily basis with technical people within and outside my own company. Without the solid grounding in technical principles of software, networks and systems theory that I got at University, I would undoubtedly be less equipped to not only understand my company’s technical development process, but also earn the respect of my team and peers.

4. Open-minded acceptance of people.

University is great at throwing a diverse set of people together into one big heterogenous melting pot. Unlike school, where popularity rankings and “in” vs “out” groups are quickly established, varsity tends to create an ecosystem where different types of people coexist side by side. In class, we were forced to work with people we normally wouldn’t have interacted with, and this was a powerful force helping to instill a sense of meritocracy among the students, i.e. it doesn’t matter who they are, as long as they can get the work done. 

Giving people a chance and evaluating them purely on their merits is a huge factor in entrepreneurship. With the randomness and ups and downs of life that entrepreneurs are hyper-exposed to, I think that they also realize that anybody can become extremely successful one day. I will always remember a particular fellow from my residence at university who was very quiet, odd looking and generally a loner. I spoke to him a few times about casual topics and one day he emailed me something. I have long forgotten the subject matter, but I still recall the quote he appended to the bottom of his email:

"The more of a loser someone thinks you are, the more surprised they’ll be when you kill them" (Nida Tahir)

Now, I’m sure he was being metaphorical but let’s just say that since seeing that I never once underestimated him or brushed him off… and try to never let myself do that with anybody else- ever.

Such unexpected lessons are part of the magic of university.

How To Do A Corporate Customer Event Right

Let’s face it: corporate conferences and workshops are usually a drag. Attendees are invited to some type of day-long session where they will be presented with new information and opportunities regarding their own businesses, which is linked to the products of the hosting company.

Most of the time, these workshops amount to one presentation after another for the entire day. While the tempo and energy in the room can be picked up by having good presenters, the attendees often end up burning out during the sessions and switching off. You know what I mean. Yawns. Eyes glazing over.

It was thus a great delight for me to have participated in an customer event in Minneapolis last week that was a huge success. Xerox Corporation is running a series of conferences in the US for some of their regional customers, and Personera was (along with XMPie) one of the two partner companies invited to present. 

Xerox decided to change things up for this event, which started (instead of ending) with an inspiring keynote speech from the founder of Fast Company over lunch. Then, they split up the event into two tracks for delegates to choose between. In the track that I was involved with, Xerox tried a new format: the late night TV talk show. The VP in charge adopted the role of interviewer a la Jay Leno, sitting behind a desk on stage and bringing up the subject experts as guests, who sat down to have a chat with him in front of the audience. Plenty of humour, plenty of fun, plenty of information shared. Not a single slide was shown. The event was an absolute hit.

It took guts to switch up the format from the usual death-by-powerpoint to something like this, and the result was a resounding success. Xerox discovered a new format that works, and I bet that they will be using it in all of their upcoming conferences in the US. So, here are a few lessons for doing different, well-received customer events:

  1. Change the format: Give people something different to what they are expecting. Be bold.
  2. Make it entertaining: It’s impossible for people to learn anything, let along feel positive about your company, if they aren’t enjoying themselves on some level.
  3. Incorporate lots of content: If people are going to take time out of the office to attend your event, be sure that there is plenty of content weaved into the interesting format and fun presentation.

Lessons from Steve Martin’s Life in Comedy


This week I finally picked up Steve Martin’s brilliant memoir, “Born Standing Up”, and devoured the entire book in two sittings. His writing is witty, conversationally fluid, and punctuated with vivid stories that teach and entertain. His story clips along at a delightful pace, starting from when he was a boy working at Disneyland, to being all grown up and the most successful stand-up comedian in the world.

Even though I’m too young to have appreciated Steve Martin at the height of his fame, I found his story riveting, and highly instructive.

"Born Standing Up" is chock-full of lessons that entrepreneurs (and any innovator) can use to better themselves. Here are some of my notes from the book:

1. Start young. He started performing recreationally as a boy and by his mid twenties was a skilled comedian (if not yet a refined one).

2. Improve with repetition. He learned that it’s “easy to be great, but it’s very difficult to be good, all of the time”. Statistically, there will be magical nights when everything clicks beautifully. Manufacturing success night after night takes practice and hard work.

3. Experiment, make mistakes. During years spent on the road, he relentlessly experimented with new jokes and routines, taking risks and facing failures in an effort to create better material and improve his original act.

4. Success comes when you least expect it. After years of working at it and not yet becoming successful, he was resolved to quit the business and “find a real job”, a day before his big break occurred.

5. When you nail it, money pours in quickly. Once he become popular his fame swept the nation and he became rich very quickly. His career in comedy at the height of his fame also only lasted a few short years.

6. The journey is the special part. At pinnacle of his career success, he became uninspired and actually longed for his days on the road where his act was smaller and less scripted. The journey in getting to the top was where he experienced the most creativity and passion in career.

In addition to these powerful lessons, there are many stories shared that made me stop, think, and appreciate his character a little bit more. Here are a few:

- He used to suffer from severe panic attacks as a regularly. At one point, the onset of darkness was enough to bring them on.

- As a traveling comedian on the road, he developed a rule to not try to pick up waitresses in the venues he performed at for six months, but butter them up over that time instead. As he would return to each city many times over the years, his strategy paid off nicely.

- When he started earning millions, he elegantly describes his new position of wealth as “not having to check the prices of things”. I think it’s a great definition.

- At one point in the book, he states very matter of factly, that to him, “comedy is serious”.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the raw passion oozing out of every page. At the end of the book, I was struck by the realization that Steve Martin is far from done. He consistently strives to reinvent himself and push his art further. We all know that after stand-up, he had a very successful career in the movie business. I can’t wait for him to write a sequel.

A Key Lesson for Fighters (and Entrepreneurs Too)


Today I came upon a memorable passage in a fantastic book called The Fighter’s Mind: Inside the Mental Game by Sam Sheridan. Driven by interviews with the best competitive fighters in the world (wrestling, boxing, MMA etc), it’s chock full of insights on the mindset needed to be a champion.

For a person with no martial arts experience, this book would be interesting, but for others who have spent any amount of time training in the ring or on the mat, it’s mesmerizing. (Some years ago I trained in Muay Thai and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and my passionate interest for the sport of grappling and MMA has never left, so Sheridan’s book has been a rare treat).

The passage that I found so memorable was about the winner’s mindset of continuous progress even in the face of setbacks. In a chapter called “The King of Scrambles”, trainer extraordinaire Ricardo Liborio states: 

"Maturity is a big part of success in fighting, because it means that you understand the game—that losing is part of the game. It doesn’t mean to let yourself get conquered, but to know that you can win again, at the right time you can be great. The key to doing well in competition is to accept.

Accept that you can lose, you can not perform. Take this big bag of rocks out of your backpack, take the pressure off, and you’ll do better. Once you understand that, man, you can do well.”

Worth re-reading many times.

Life Lessons from “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch

All achievement in life begins with the spark of inspiration. If motivation keeps the internal fire burning while pursuing a goal, inspiration is the matchstick. And as the old saying goes, “You can’t light a fire with a wet match”.
Last night while doing a little reflecting, I remembered the incredibly moving talk by Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University in September 2007 titled “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”. The lecture was part of a tradition at Carnegie Mellon for retiring professors who were to give a lecture on whatever they wished to share with students as the last lecture they gave before they died—metaphorically speaking of course. The cosmic irony in this case is that Prof. Pausch had terminal pancreatic cancer at the time of his lecture (he passed away several months later).

The cancer did not stop him that day. His lecture was so profound that it ended up being watched by millions, converted into a book, and for a two hour presentation—it changed the world. 
Here’s the video which I highly recommend:

To me, some of the most memorable life lessons that he shared were (my favourites in bold):
  • Always have something to bring to the table- it helps (i.e. be good at something).
  • Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.
  • Leadership is a highly valuable skill. In Star Trek, Captain Kirk was far from the smartest officer- but he had the skill of leadership.
  • When you want something from someone, try to ask them at a time when they can’t say no.
  • If you wait long enough, people will surprise you (i.e. if you’re pissed with someone now, eventually they will show you their good side).
  • When people give you feedback, cherish it and use it.
  • Don’t complain. Just work harder.
  • When you do the right thing, good stuff has a way of happening.
  • Be prepared, because luck is where preparation meets opportunity.
  • Brick walls are there for a reason. They help us to prove how badly we want something. They are there to separate us from the people who don’t really want to achieve their goal badly enough.
Randy Pausch’s last lecture will always be special to me, as a source of valuable lessons, and a personal inspiration.