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A Model for Success

STANFORD'S TOM BYERS HAS PLENTY OF EXPERIENCE AS AN ENTREPRENEUR, AND NOW HE'S TEACHING ENGINEERING STUDENTS HOW TO NAVIGATE THE COMPLEX WORLD OF BUSINESS.

- By Alice Daniels

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 California–Berkeley. 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 Systems—now MIPS Technologies—which 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 Corner, (http://edcorner.stanford.edu), 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 ideas.

HIGH ROLLER

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 adaniel@asee.org.

 

 

 

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