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Last week I started a four-part series on Academic Entrepreneurship by suggesting that summer is the perfect time to play with new professional possibilities and encouraging any academic who is thinking about starting a new venture this year to get clear about three questions: 1) What do you want to create? 2) What problem do you want to solve? 3) What is the unique solution you can provide?

While elegant simplicity is a great starting point, there’s an important step before moving into action: shifting your mindset. It took me a long time to learn the difference between an academic mindset and an entrepreneurial mindset. I’m not going to argue that one is better (or worse) than the other. They’re just different ways of approaching problem solving. The good news is that once you understand the difference, you can choose to shift between them. In fact, I often imagine these different mindsets like light switches. I can choose to turn them on (or off) as needed.

Since many of you got excited last week by naming a problem you care deeply about and imagining a solution, I want to invite you to consider that there will be times in bringing your passion project to life that you will be required to flip the switch for your academic mindset “off” and your entrepreneurial mindset “on.” So as not to offend anyone or be accused of making gross generalizations, I’ll just describe the differences in terms of my own journey from professor to CEO.

5 Differences Between Academic and Entrepreneurial Mindsets

1. Academics move slow. Entrepreneurs move fast.

As an academic my approach to change was to move slowly, deliberately and cautiously. I believed that the best way to minimize mistakes was through extensive conversation, committee meetings, producing volumes of written material, etc. In other words, the best way to make a decision was by slowly moving through a process that involved lots of talking, thinking and analyzing before doing anything. As an entrepreneur I act first and analyze later. Quick movement is essential because my goal is to get into action and fail as fast as possible. Every time I fail, I can evaluate what worked (and didn’t work), make quick adjustments, and get back into action. Failing gives me lots of data that I can use to adapt as I’m moving forward.

2. Academics study problems. Entrepreneurs solve problems.

As an academic researcher, my primary goal was to thoroughly analyze the cause of problems. I would spend my time going as deeply as possible to the root of the problem and fleshing it out in all its glorious complexity. As an entrepreneur, problems are to be solved and the cause may (or may not) be relevant to an effective solution. Being solution-obsessed means I spend my time experimenting with solutions and measuring outcomes.

3. Academics function in constraint. Entrepreneurs create possibility.

As an academic at a public university, I was embedded in an environment of shrinking resources and a culture of constraint (there’s no budget for ______, state funding is shrinking, you have to do more with less, etc.). This was such a constant pressure over time that it shaped the parameters of my thinking to the point that any brainstorming about solutions started with, “What can be done with no resources.” As an entrepreneur, it’s critical to first dream up solutions without any constraints and then figure out how to make what you imagine a reality. Instead of assuming no resources are available, entrepreneurs trust that resources can always be generated to fund good ideas.

4. Academics focus on patterns. Entrepreneurs focus on the exceptions.

When I talked about starting a business, almost every conversation with an academic involved the data on the percentage of new businesses that fail. Most of these conversations occurred with social scientists who observe patterns and calculate probabilities as part of their research. The implicit message was that most businesses fail, the probability is high that yours will fail, so why bother trying? The entrepreneurs I talked to focused on the small percentage of businesses that are highly successful. The implicit message was that there are exceptions to every pattern, so you’ll want to focus on how to be one of the few who succeed.

5. Academics loathe promotion. Entrepreneurs live to sell.

From my academic mindset, promoting myself, my work, or my ideas was unseemly. I was professionally socialized to believe that people should quietly do good work, submit to the review of others, and then let that work speak for itself. As an entrepreneur, I’m in love with the solutions I offer so I’m constantly making invitations to people to step into our programs because I’ve seen the transformations that occur as a result. There is no shame in my game whatsoever; in fact, I feel it’s a disservice not to let people know what we have to offer.

Reading about the differences between an academic and entrepreneurial mindset may have caused a bit of discomfort! Whether they resonate with you or not, I’m drawing out the differences because I want to raise your awareness that while our academic mindset is perfectly suited to teaching, knowledge production and campus life, it may keep us from quickly getting into action when it’s time to make our big ideas a reality.

The Week’s Challenge

This week I challenge you to:

1) Pause and imagine what it would look like to shift from an academic to an entrepreneurial mindset as you move forward in your new venture.

2) If you’re unable to imagine yourself moving quickly, experimenting without prior analysis, creating without constraint, being the exception and getting comfortable with promotion, gently ask yourself: why?

3) Revisit your answer to last week’s question: The problem I want to solve is ______________; my solution is __________________. Visualize flipping your entrepreneurial mindset switch “on” (and your academic mindset “off”) and then spend 15 minutes rewriting that sentence and brainstorming three actions you could take to move your solution forward.

I hope this week brings you a spirit of flexibility and curiosity to experiment with shifting your mindset enough to plan your next steps!

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President and CEO, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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