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The Close School of Entrepreneurship at Drexel University

Originally published June 1, 2014

SFL interviewed Donna De Carolis, the founding Dean of the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship and the Silverman Family Professor of Entrepreneurial Leadership at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Since this interview, the hard work of De Carolis, her faculty and staff, as well as the students of Drexel has yielded impressive results.

SFL: Please briefly describe your background.

Donna De Carolis, Founding Dean, Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship, Drexel University

Donna De Carolis: Originally, I had intended to go into teaching, specifically, at the high school level, but I learned it was not want I wanted as a career. So, I went back to school for my MBA, and while I was doing that, I ran a company with a couple of individuals providing strategy consulting and PR consulting and a whole range of government-relational projects. While I was doing that, I was getting my MBA. I was always intrigued by education. I moved on then to do my Ph.D. in Strategy and Innovation Management. I got a job here at Drexel as a professor teaching, performing research, consulting once in a while, and then I got into administration. I became department head of the college of business. I became an associate dean. Then, I worked on developing what we’re talking about today, which is the Close School of Entrepreneurship. This is another new venture for me.

SFL: How did the Close School come to be? As the only free-standing school of entrepreneurship, I think that would be an interesting path to describe.

De Carolis: You’re right. To have a school of entrepreneurship to sit outside of the business school as an independent academic unit is such an innovation, and it’s uniquely Drexel. It fits in with Drexel’s plan to focus on entrepreneurship across campus.

Students today are very interested in this thing called entrepreneurship. They’re coming not just from the business school. They’re coming from the engineering school, the English department, nursing. They’re coming from all over. A good many of students on campus are already starting companies.

At the Close School, we’re launching students into the 21st century workplace, where they will not have the same job for even 10 years. We know that by the time our students are 40-years old or so, they will have at least 10 jobs in multiple industries, and several of them will be self-employed. Students need to have an understanding now, Drexel feels, of how they will need entrepreneurship in their life and in their career. That’s part of the Close School philosophy.

Another thing that is unique about the Close School is that most entrepreneurship programs speak only about the process of entrepreneurship, which is fine, but there’s a difference between entrepreneurship in a person and the process of entrepreneurship. At the Close School, we are also committed to teaching about entrepreneurship as an habit of mind, as an attitude. It’s an innovative attitude for life, and for a career. You can be entrepreneurial within an established company. It’s a mindset. At Drexel, we feel there is really a market need for entrepreneurial learning that cuts across all disciplines so that all students have a path to entrepreneurship. That’s where the genesis of the school came from.

SFL: This school just essentially started, and I read that there’s a Masters program starting tentatively for the Fall of 2016. I’m wondering, from an application standpoint, what are the things that you’re looking for in a student that might be different from other schools?

De Carolis: You have to remember that our students are being admitted through the university as well as through the college. There’s a set of things that the university requires initially like a certain GPA, transcripts, letters of recommendation, things like that.

In terms of the Close School, we interview students when they come in. We’re looking people who get what we’re doing. What we’re finding is most, if not all, of the first class that we have tell us, ‘This is what I was looking for.’ We really look for students who are interested in our programs and our philosophy.

We have other programs beside the degree. Students from anywhere, not just from the Close School, from any college, can apply for entrepreneurship co-op, where they work for their own company for six months, and we reimburse them a salary. Basically, we are saying, ‘You know what? This is the ultimate way, we think, we can get students to understand the process of entrepreneurship and about being an entrepreneur and giving them a safe place to fail.’

SFL: Looking at the curriculum and listening to the philosophy, it seems you are really trying to educate your students on a very specific set of attitudes, knowledge, and skills that can lend themselves to any field. You bring up the notion of somebody essentially coming there for the right reasons. I’m wondering, what are the attitudes, knowledge and skills you’re trying to develop upon graduation?

De Carolis: I can answer your question, but I’m going to refine the second part of your question, which is: What are things that we teach?

Over the course of four or five years, we work to have launched graduates who are recognizing opportunities and screening opportunities. We want to launch graduates who take the initiative. We want to launch graduates who are resilient. We want to launch graduates who know how to work in a team, and also how to lead. That’s what we’re looking at. We do that through our curriculum.

For example, we offer a course on failure. We have a course on building teams. We have a course on leadership. We have a course on strategy. We have a bucket of courses meant for students who understand the need to be active in their careers. Sort of cupped into those courses are practical experience, so they’re learning how to actually live this.

To get back to your question, anyone’s interested in entrepreneurship, that’s a good baseline criteria. We wouldn’t deny someone because they don’t have a certain skill, or because they don’t have a baseline testing number. Our philosophy is, and its consistent with we started the school, we wanted to provide a past entrepreneurship for all students. It may be a major, it may be a minor, it may be elective course, it may be the co-op. There’s a continuum. We’re not really saying that somebody has to have a certain degree of X, Y or Z to get into the school.

SFL: You mentioned a couple of courses that I found very interesting. Could you give me your thoughts about some of them? Innovation Neighborhood?

De Carolis: Yes. Oh my gosh, I love this course. I’ll tell you why I love this course. One of the things I noticed when I was in the business school, just being around Drexel, is that just because you’re enrolled, doesn’t mean you know what’s going on in the whole university. Innovation Neighborhood, coined after the university’s strategic plan where we planned actual physical development of mixed use space down by 30th street and connecting all across campus, of retail, academic programs, corporate, new ventures, incubators. You know, innovation districts. Innovation neighborhoods. In the class Innovation Neighborhood, named after Drexel’s strategic vision, we take students to all of the really cool things that are happening in Drexel. For example, one week, we’ll visit our Excite Center, which is our center that deals with the integration of engineering technology and the arts. Incorporating robotics into music, and things like that. We take them to the science center, which is up the street. We take them to our biomedical program, which has been funded by the culture foundation. All of the different things in different areas, we want students to be exposed to this so they understand what’s happening at Drexel, and so that they can aware of the entrepreneurial opportunities that may arise in those areas.

SFL: Another class that I find interesting is the Ready, Set, Fail class. We’re taught that failure is such a terrible thing. Can you tell me about the Ready Set Fail class, and also about the phrase you used ‚ ‘safe place to fail’‚ and how is that important in higher education?

De Carolis: Let me talk about the course first. Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a compliment. Everyone wants to succeed, but you learn more from failure. If you want to be an entrepreneur in any context, if you’re going to be an innovator in any context, you’re going to fail. The important thing is having resilience and understanding that you’re going to fail more than you’re going to succeed, as well as learning from those failures. You learn more failures. The course Ready, Set, Fail is focused more on, how do we build the person? How do we get students to understand that you’re going to start 100 adventures, and 99 of them are going to fail. This course is about not only resilience, the psychology of resilience, examples from real life entrepreneurs, it’s also about risk mitigation. It’s about calculated decision making. If something is risky, how can you minimize the risk? How can you look at it? We have an emotional component, and also a more objective component. The second part of your question was providing a safe place to fail. This is what I mean by that. In an entrepreneurial program at a university, what better place is there for them to fail? We give them all of these opportunities in classes to throw out their ideas, start new ventures, even if it’s only an academic exercise. If they fail, they’re not really failing in the real world. If they fail in the university, they can get back up, and we can push them to get them started again. In our class called Launch It, which is actually based on the lead start-up model, it’s not a business planning class, failure is a huge part of that class. Students are testing the assumptions of their business model before they would officially launch a business. They’re out doing market research, doing focus groups. The first time we ran this class, I watched the presentations at the end, and it thrilled me. Students would come in and say, ‘I came into this class trying to do X, I learned that it wouldn’t work, so I changed, I worked my idea, and now I’m working on Y.’ That’s the kind of learning we want. I hope that that answers your question.

SFL: Can you tell me about the Drexel Startup Day?

De Carolis: Oh, absolutely. Drexel Startup Day is all about, for every student in the university, it’s not just about competition. What we’ve done with Startup Day is to represent the core mission of the close school. The Baiada institution has always been our hands-on place for entrepreneurship. Startup Day is for all students, and we have a variety of activities that students can become involved in from co-founder speed dating. The goal of Startup Day is to get the students involved in the community. For example, it’s called co-founder speed dating. Lots of times, we hear from students, ‘I have an idea for a company, but I have no idea who I can work with or I want to start a company, but I don’t have any ideas.’ We’re having speed dating, where people who have ideas or people who just want to be part of a startup can meet each other. We have a 60 second elevator pitch, and there’s a prize for that. We have an incubator competition. We have a Keynote speaker, Nick Bayer, CEO of Saxby’s Coffee. It’s a whole day. Many colleges will have their own tables there, showcasing entrepreneurial opportunities. For example, the college of arts and sciences. The idea of the day is really action. It’s not just students sitting around and listening to speakers and watching a competition. It’s getting involved in something.