Pioneer Professor: You Can Be an Entrepreneur

Pioneer Academics held a Pioneer Open Dialogue Seminar (PODS) with Professor Ted Zoller of University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business on December 16, 2016. At UNC, he oversees the teaching and outreach programs of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Dr. Zoller spoke online with 20 students from six regions: Rwanda, India, China, Hong Kong, the United States, and Malaysia. He spoke about what it takes to be an entrepreneur and how students can develop the skills necessary to become one.

Co-host: Christina Sun

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Cohosting the event was Christina Sun, one of Professor Zoller’s students in the Pioneer Research Program last summer. Christina is a senior at Harbin No.3 High School in Harbin, China. Opening the event, Dr. Zoller said to the students that the goal of his talk was “to open you up to what could be your entrepreneurial future.”

What is entrepreneurship?

Dr. Zoller challenged student attendees, asking, “are you an entrepreneur?” He said that many young people don’t see themselves as entrepreneurs when, in fact, they have the potential to be. He said the common excuses are “I don’t have an idea,” “I don’t have enough resources,” and “I don’t have the capability to be an entrepreneur.” Dr. Zoller then told students that entrepreneurship is a process of constructing and designing their own lives. He said that the biggest barrier to becoming an entrepreneur is giving oneself permission to seize opportunities. The students learned Howard Steven’s definition of entrepreneurship – “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.”

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Dr. Zoller likened entrepreneurship to playing checkers and not chess. One always has to look at the changing context of the market. A new idea is only disruptive until the market adopts and assumes it. Innovative ideas may not initially be well received because they’ve never existed before. But if they solve a real need, then they will become part of the market landscape.

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Success

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Dr. Zoller led a discussion of words like “opportunity,” “risk, “luck,” and “failure” in the context of entrepreneurship. He also lingered on the word “success,” saying everyone has a different understanding of it, but that “unless you define it, you don’t know how to acquire it.” He advised students to think about the special contribution they wanted to make in their lifetimes and the change they’d like to see in the world, and then define that as success for themselves.

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Preparing to be an entrepreneur

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One student in India asked what formal training or things students should do to prepare to be entrepreneurs. Dr. Zoller suggested studying the nature of markets, finance, and economics, and also building experience in the domain in which they’d like to make a difference, like biotechnology, product development, etc. He also recommended students consider universities that have programs to teach innovation, problem solving, and business creation.

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New ideas

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The discussion also touched on the nature of ideas. Students learned that “ideas are valuable, but ideas that are applied are invaluable.” Dr. Zoller told them that entrepreneurs may have new ideas or not, but that they take ideas and make them available to others to solve real problems.

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What makes an entrepreneur?

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In the session, Dr. Zoller conceived of a model of entrepreneurship in which the entrepreneur understands both the market and an innovation. The entrepreneur knows the need of a customer that’s not being met and then the insight that will allow an innovation to meet that need. The customer may not be aware a problem is not being solved until they’re presented with the solution. This is where the entrepreneur’s value proposition lies. This entire process is one of iteration. The expert entrepreneur arrives at the value proposition through having an insight that they test in the market, and then take the market’s feedback to improve their solution. This is often called “lean methodology.”

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The importance of teams

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Dr. Zoller also hit on another key component of entrepreneurship—execution. It is essential to deliver a solution in a timely way that does not expend more resources than it creates. He said that a strong team brings in “left brain entrepreneurs,” those who focus on details, and “right brain entrepreneurs,” those who see the big picture. The left brain entrepreneur dives deep into the business plan and into how very specific details work. The right brain entrepreneur considers how the overall business model meets market trends. A good venture will make use of both kinds of people because they complement each other.