Playing With the Possibilities

Summer is the perfect time to consider how to be entrepreneurial -- in and out of academe -- writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

July 7, 2014

Summer is a time many academics pause to consider professional possibilities. Should I go on the job market again this year? Do I really want to be a professor? What else is out there? How could I supplement my income this year? As a former tenured professor who left the academy to start a business, the summer is when my phone rings off the hook with people wanting to know: How did you go from Ph.D. to CEO?

The truth is that I had a fairly straightforward path: I felt passionate about a particular problem (the lack of meaningful mentoring for academics throughout their careers), I worked hard to develop a solution, I tested that solution at my university, and then I left to develop my own business so I could offer that solution to other universities. After four years in business, my organization proudly serves over 56,000 graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members.

Because I receive so many requests, I would like to demystify the process where those who are interested in exploring the idea of starting something (whether it’s a new business, nonprofit, side-hustle, exit strategy, or campus initiative) can move from a great idea to an actual entity. Over the next four weeks, I’ll describe how to: 1) identify the basic components of a workable venture, 2) explore the difference between how academics and entrepreneurs approach new ideas, 3) describe how to build a network of support, and 4) explain how to take the first steps forward.

While many campuses have great resources for STEM researchers, I want to speak to the rest of you! I’m what’s known as a “social entrepreneur” because I’m primarily interested in solutions to social problems. As such, this series is aimed toward those of you who have transformative ideas for social change but aren’t sure how to get them up and running, especially those of your who have never thought of yourselves as entrepreneurs (or thought that was a bad word). All ideas (large and small) are welcome for exploration because the purpose of this series is to encourage you to just imagine how you could bring your passion project to life.

The Basics

At the most basic level, there are three components to making a new venture successful. Your idea has to help people solve a problem that they already know they have and are actively seeking to solve. It really is that simple: there’s a problem, people know they have a problem, and they are looking for an answer to the problem. If you sell the solution, it’s a business. If you give it away, it’s a charity. The form is irrelevant at this point; what matters most is that you’re clear that these three components are the key ingredients to starting something that takes off quickly. In order to figure out what that looks like for you, try answering the following three questions.

Question #1: What do you really want?

I don’t have any judgment about what people want, but I encourage you to be brutally honest with yourself. For example, when I started my business, I wanted to help people win tenure, make enough money to support myself, and have fun doing it (in that order). You may want something totally different: a side-hustle, an exit strategy, to be paid for the thing you're giving away all the time, to start a movement, to create a nonprofit, to create a new alternative to a static set of possibilities, or to make change on your campus or in your discipline. Whatever you want is fine, just take a few moments to write it down.

Question #2: What is the problem you want to solve?

Once you are clear about your intentions, it’s time to identify the problem that you want to solve. It may be that you have something really specific in mind, and if so, state that explicitly. For me, the problem I wanted to solve was the fact that the way universities set up mentoring arrangements doesn’t work for most people, most of the time. It’s ineffective and inefficient, and when it fails, it’s financially costly. Can you state a specific problem that you want to solve? If so, write it down.

Question #3: What is your solution?

It’s great to know the problem, but it’s even more important to know how to solve it. The most important question, therefore, is: What is your unique solution? Here you want to be as clear, direct, and simple as possible. Many people I work with say: “I want to help people!” That’s lovely, but helping people isn’t a solution to a specific problem. If nothing specific comes up for you, then try asking it a slightly different way: if you could wave a magic wand and see a change in the world, what would that change look like? For example, if I could wave a magic wand, faculty members would receive all of the support, information, and effective mentoring they need to be highly productive and have a life. That specifies who I want to help (faculty), how I want to help (the provision of high-quality professional development, support, and effective mentoring), and the desired outcome (high productivity and work-life balance).

I’ve worked with a number of academics who wanted to start a business or new initiative and the biggest mistake that I see people make is they overthink it. Their answers to the problem and solution questions are too complex -- so much so that it's difficult to take the first steps. Instead, I encourage you to start by thinking as elegantly simple as possible.

The Week’s Challenge

This week I challenge you to:

1) give yourself permission to spend 15 minutes in a state of imaginative possibility

2) grab a piece of paper and pen, set a timer, and turn away from your computer

3) journal on three questions: 1) what do I want, 2) what is the problem I want to solve, and 3) what is the best solution?

4) finish your journaling time by summarizing your thoughts in one sentence: The problem I want to solve is ______________; my solution is ________________.

I hope this week brings you the willingness to suspend judgment and criticism just long enough to exercise your imagination and play with some new possibilities!

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President and CEO, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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