June 18, 2018

Welcome to Entrepreneurship U, Part One | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellIt used to be that a focus on entrepreneurship was limited to the business school. Now, for graduate students from any discipline who demonstrate innovation, higher ed is going “all-in” on entrepreneurship. Academic librarians should be looking for new opportunities to help.

References to starving artists and taxi-driving English majors are all too common in the mass media. Taking tuition money to produce highly educated but underemployed, or even unemployable, graduates, from BA to PhD, is a practice for which higher education institutions are frequently criticized. The entire “who needs college” conversation, prompted by liberal arts grads working as baristas and a few well-known cases of college dropouts who make it big, is gradually subsiding but never seems to disappear completely. Articles like this one in the New York Times keep the debate alive. Colleges and universities, perhaps in response to such criticism, are taking action to prepare their students to use their education, whatever their major, to think and act entrepreneurially in a world in which a diploma is no longer a guarantee of well-paid, rewarding employment. Academic librarians can support their institutions’ efforts to prepare students for this new world.

Start small on campus

When you enter the design and arts college building on my own campus, you see something unique among the art exhibits: a store. Students in traditional art and design programs are learning how to market and sell their artwork and design products. The Hatchery is an incubator from which students can sell prints, T-shirts, or tote bags that carry their artistic output. For art and design students there is a natural connection to entrepreneurship through the tradition of selling such creative wares. Incubators bring together experts from the arts and business that help students become business-savvy entrepreneurs before they graduate. Increasingly, colleges and universities want to expand these services to include liberal arts, communications, science, and other majors who can likewise benefit from exploring entrepreneurial possibilities.

Coming to Your College Soon

Encouraging students to engage in entrepreneurial pursuits is nothing new for higher education. It’s just that entrepreneurship studies, from their inception, were primarily the domain of the business school. Traditional liberal arts colleges without business programs gave little thought to entrepreneurial studies. That’s changing. As reported in a Forbes article about the most entrepreneurial colleges, “Middlebury is one of many small liberal arts colleges reinventing themselves as modern-day start-up incubators—geared toward for-profit enterprises and nonprofits alike.” Finding ways to help liberal arts majors tap into their inner creativity to boost innovation is not the problem. It’s giving the students ways to harness it and turn it into something concrete and possibly marketable. Liberal arts educators may have once harbored a degree of disdain for business studies, but now they are looking to B-school entrepreneurial institutes for ideas. As one Middlebury administrator put it, “It was almost like we were taking these ideas from business schools and figuring out what a Middlebury version would be.” That’s led to a whole range of new activity for the humanities and social sciences, including start-up competitions, incubator spaces, and new partnerships with business entrepreneurs.

Still Figuring It Out

As with any new movement within higher education it will take time to figure out exactly what it means to “entrepreneurize” the curriculum. As evidenced by this Chronicle article there is no dearth of experimentation with ways to integrate entrepreneurship education into new curricular areas. One way in which institutions are approaching the challenge is to create start-up labs and incubators that are not specific to any one academic program but invite faculty and students from any discipline to engage in the development of new products and services. As is expected in business-averse higher education, the entrepreneurship trend is sometimes opposed on the grounds that, by design, it puts the burden of risk on our students for their own career success or failure, while enriching only themselves or corporate America when they succeed. That’s certainly possible, but student entrepreneurism can also engage with social causes, such as helping low-income communities establish small business opportunities. Whatever they choose to focus on, what these entrepreneurship programs have in common is teaching students to identify problems and then use their creativity to develop innovative solutions.

What We’ve Always Done

This trend puts academic librarians in a good position to connect with campus entrepreneurs. Business librarians, in particular, have a history of partnering with campus entrepreneurship centers to provide research support to faculty and students, whether for course assignments or innovation competitions. Whether assisting with company or product research, offering templates for business plans, or identifying potential funding sources, academic librarians are well positioned to serve as partners and guides for budding entrepreneurs. As the expectations for campus innovation ratchet up and entrepreneurship spreads throughout the curriculum, academic librarians should find new territory for serving their communities. At my institution we were actually approached by a high-ranking administrator in the B-School who wanted to partner with the library to develop an innovation center located in our space. We wanted to welcome it but unfortunately were unable to meet the space requirements. Space may be an asset of interest to entrepreneurial partners, but as academic librarians, with an innovative spirit of our own, we have more to offer than just space.

Part two of this column will delve more deeply into library creativity and innovation spaces and what that might look like—as well as other opportunities academic librarians may have to participate in and enrich this approach. Libraries have always been spaces for deep thinking, contemplation, discovery, and ideation. How do we build that into the type of spaces and programs that will best serve Entrepreneurship U?

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Thank you for the coverage and insights on the need for cross-campus entrepreneurship, Steven. For many years, the Coleman Foundation has been funding cross-campus entrepreneurship education through its Coleman Fellows program, which includes right now one librarian (https://liaisonlife.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/2015summit/) — more would be great. UNCG’s cross-campus entrepreneurship program now covers around 26 departments with 46 or so classes: arts, sciences, social sciences, etc. all on board. Through innovative use of its spaces and proactive engagement by library liaisons, the library can certainly be a core partner for such initiatives.

  2. Stephanie Walker says:

    Brooklyn College Library has gone a step further. As well as supporting other entrepreneurial ventures, we’ve fundamentally integrated entrepreneurship into the very structure of our library. This was facilitated by the fact that Academic IT is also in the library, so we have access to additional technology expertise. We actually have a unit in our library formally entitled “Library Entrepreneurship, Systems, & Network Support.” We define entrepreneurship broadly, to include everything from revenue-generating inventions to products and services we’ve created that are especially innovative, generally involving technology, even if they are not revenue generators. We’ve been developing products since about 2004, and in the last 3 years or so, have partnered with our Office of Technology Commercializations on initiatives. Yes, we even make money on some things. Our most notable money maker is a very user-friendly book-friendly scanner that we sell for about half the cost of commercial versions. Our most innovative invention that is not for money (most aren’t) but that provides a hugely valuable service to our campus and really raised the profile of the library is an online, secured document management system for promotion and tenure files. This allows candidates to upload their documents and committee members to read materials remotely at any time, rather than being stuck in an airless reading room for days on end reading paper files. We even formally incorporated fostering an entrepreneurial, innovative spirit into our recent strategic plan. Entrepreneurship shouldn’t be a dirty word in libraries – we’ve always innovated!