Even if you've never met Tom Byers, you know him.
He's the type whose infectious enthusiasm could jolt an apathetic
heart. He'll ask you a question and really want to know the answer.
He can talk on any topic from Southern rock music to pen computers.
His students and colleagues speak of him as a guru, a visionary, someone
who preaches his ideas with missionary-like zeal. He could be a politician,
a good one, but he's not, exactly. He's an entrepreneur in
academia and he's doing his part to change the way engineering
and science students do business all over the world.
As the founder and academic director of the Stanford
Technology Ventures Program (STVP), Byers's gospel is high-technology
entrepreneurship. Stanford's proximity to so many high-tech companies
made it the right place to found a technology ventures program. Students
can learn how to write a business plan or secure funding for a startup
from some of the top entrepreneurial names in the country. Venture
capitalist John Doehr, and executives from such nameplates as Intuit,
JetBlue Airways, Hewlett Packard, Cisco Systems, Genetec, and eBay
have all made themselves available to students at one time or another.
Tom Byers has the credibility to bring in industry's
top leaders. He champions such skills as teamwork, critical thinking,
and the ability to turn ideas into opportunities because he believes
businesses want their employees to be able to think like entrepreneurs
even if that's not what they become. He's seen as a
thought leader in entrepreneur education, says Randy Komisar,
who co-teaches a course with Byers called High Tech Entrepreneurship
and is the author of the book The Monk and the Riddle: The Education
of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur. He's lived it. He's
done it. He is an entrepreneur.
Many young people today are interested in entrepreneurship.
Polls indicate that over two thirds of high school students hope to
operate their own businesses someday. In recent years, engineering
schools have come to realize the importance of entrepreneurship, and
there are now dozens of programs across the nation. In an entrepreneurship-oriented
curriculum, students learn how to conceptualize, design, produce, and
bring a product to market.
The program at Stanford offers, for example, a course
on strategy that focuses on creating companies in a rapidly changing,
highly uncertain technology-based industry. Students are taught to
think for themselves. They learn how to raise capital and manage people.
They see how actual decisions are made by examining case studies such
as the one in which Stanford engineering graduates Jerry Yang and David
Filo solicited the initial financing for the Web portal Yahoo!
Although the discipline of entrepreneurship is an accepted
part of engineering education today, it wasn't that way 10 years
ago. Byers says the movement towards entrepreneurship, which began
in the mid-1990s, was driven in part by forward-thinking professors
who felt such skills were vital and by vocal students who were eager
to learn more. While entrepreneurship courses were offered in university
M.B.A. programs, engineering and science students often felt squeezed
out by business students. Byers noticed this tension while teaching
entrepreneurship in the M.B.A. program at the University of CaliforniaBerkeley.
He also found that the students he most enjoyed teaching had an engineering
or science background. That's one reason he jumped at the chance
to co-teach a course in technology ventures at Stanford's School
of Engineering. In 1995, he was asked to pilot STVP and it turned out
he had both the education and business background to do it. The
genius of [Tom's] implementation has been his ability to clearly
articulate his ideas in a way that has academic depth as well as hands-on
practicality, says Stanford University President John Hennessy,
himself a well-known entrepreneur who co-founded MIPS Computer Systemsnow
MIPS Technologieswhich designs microprocessors.
Part of STVP's mission is to share its resources,
especially on the Internet. One of our goals was not only to
build the curriculum but to give it away, says Byers. Its Educator's
allows faculty around the world to develop and hone their own entrepreneurship
programs by accessing information on teaching resources, work/study
programs, and even the design of courses. Conferences are another important
part of the program, both at Stanford and around the world, to give
faculty members from different universities an opportunity to exchange
Byers grew up the youngest of three boys in Atlanta in
a household where education was considered a top priority. I
really enjoyed being a student. Our mother just drove education into
us, says Byers, who went to Georgia Tech his senior year of high
school and then graduated second in his class from Berkeley's
School of Engineering. From there, he worked for Andersen Consulting
and then played lead guitar in a Southern rock band in Eureka, California I've
always loved business and engineering but I also love performing. That
aspect of it, it's not just artistic, it's pure joy. I was
also the manager of the band. We had a million names, Mason Dixon,
High Roller, says Byers. But too many late nights performing
other people's music left Byers yearning for school, so he headed
back to Berkeley and got an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in Management Science
in four years.
I was the only Ph.D. in my class who didn't
go right into academic life, says Byers, who spent the next 10
years working in Silicon Valley. He became an executive vice president
at Symantec during its founding years and then, in 1990, he started
a pen computing company, which eventually failed. I learned a
lot. It showed me how dangerous it is to be too early with an idea,
and how to accept failure, says Byers. At that point, Byers decided
to return to the academic life, but this time as a teacher.
The recipient of several teaching awards, Byers says
he has no doubt that entrepreneurial skills can be taught. For instance,
in High Tech Entrepreneurship, he teaches teamwork by asking students
to develop a project from scratch, and in one course, he has each student
consider the broader picture of his or her career by developing a personal
business plan. Victor Seidel, a former student and now a lecturer in
Management Studies at Oxford's Said Business School, says Byers
infuses an element of fun in the classroom and has tremendous personal
enthusiasm for his subject matter. What engineering student wouldn't
want to hear first-hand about the roller-coaster early days of Tom's
involvement with pen computing? says Seidel. What student
wouldn't like to be challenged to decide upon and wear a team
costume on the second day of class?
The undergraduate and graduate students who take STVP
courses are from myriad majors, including electrical engineering, computer
science, mechanical engineering and product design, economics, biology,
and physics. Some who've gone through the program have launched
start-ups, everything from Web-based companies to semiconductor design.
Others will go to work for someone else, concluding that they need
more experience before striking out on their own. And still others
find that entrepreneurship is not for them.
No degrees are given in entrepreneurship, but several
doctoral engineering students have chosen to do dissertations on the
subject. Melissa Graebner, who now teaches at the University of Texas,
studied acquisitions of start-up companies for her dissertation and
needed access to managers. One thing I'll never forget is
how Tom helped me to make contacts for my research, she says. His
academic background helped him to immediately understand the research
I was trying to do, and his business experience led to an incredible
set of contacts. He opened his electronic Rolodex and put me in touch
with exactly the right people.
In an effort to help students take advantage of Stanford's
relationship with Silicon Valley, Byers created the Mayfield Fellows
Program, a nine-month work/study program that includes a summer internship
at a start-up company, complete with access to the founder, intense
coursework, and mentoring from the CEO. It's very intimate,
very intense. The students are like the Navy SEALs of entrepreneurship.
We throw them way in the deep end of the school, says Byers.
Byers also helped organize an entrepreneurship club called
BASES that manages the campus-wide business plan competitions and also
helps students connect with Silicon Valley companies. He says his motivation
for directing STVP comes from a belief that the entrepreneurial spirit
can help change the world. We have a perfect storm in the world
right now of environmental degradation and geopolitical tensions. There
are so many problems. I personally feel the only way out of this, other
than divine intervention, is to harness the entrepreneurial spirit.
If we can use that spirit, and get it infused and taught, then maybe
this next generation has a shot at solving half these issues.
Alice Daniel is a freelance writer
based in Fresno, Calif.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.