Have you ever finished a riveting book and realized that the plot, characters, and setting have left an indelible mark on your being? That is how I will always remember the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship – the people, energy, and ideas will forever imprint the fabric of my life.
When I joined the Trust Center nearly six years ago, I blogged about Disciplined Entrepreneurship – the framework we use for the entrepreneurship program at MIT’s Trust Center based on the book by Bill Aulet, the Center’s Managing Director. One of the ideas that resonated with me then, and continues to do so, is that “ideas mean nothing without execution.”
Reflecting on the past six years, I realize that my time at MIT was about more than a job, it was about the execution of entrepreneurship. It was a chance to shape the lives of aspiring entrepreneurs who had big dreams and ideas to change the world for the better and help them to shape and execute those ideas into concrete plans. At the Trust Center, we like to say that MIT’s student entrepreneurs tackle the world’s big problems, and it was exciting to help make that happen.
Here’s the synopsis of how I landed at the Trust Center, and filled many roles, ultimately becoming the Director of MIT delta v, as well as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management on entrepreneurship topics.
In 2014, I had completed my doctorate in work-based learning at the University of Pennsylvania’s Chief Learning Officer program, and I wasn’t sure what my next step should be. I had the option to get back into the corporate world and focus on business analytics, but instead decided to pursue a role in education. I was hired by MIT as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and to help lead the student venture accelerator program, which is now known as delta v. From there, my role has expanded to teaching entrepreneurship classes, spearheading global programs, and becoming a spokesperson and thought leader representing MIT’s entrepreneurship initiatives.
This was definitely something new and different for me, and I had to push myself out of my comfort zone and embrace the challenge. The results achieved have certainly been beyond what I could have anticipated six years ago, including the expansion of the Trust Center – both physically and via online with Orbit, growing delta v both in size and in scope, partnerships with other universities, and instituting a flagship program to support the mental health of entrepreneurs. There were also many awards and accolades along the way, both personally and for the program.
But I’m not here to toot my own horn … I want to sincerely thank the whole team at the Trust Center for their support, teamwork, and camaraderie over the years – our group is quite the entrepreneurial talent tree. I’d also like to thank all the students who I was able to work with and mentor on their entrepreneurial journeys. Your enthusiasm and bright light made the hard parts of this job rewarding and worthwhile.
For those of you who are rethinking your own career situation, after the past year this may be exactly the right time to open yourself up to new experiences and find that that your next chapter was better than your last. I am leaving a job I love for the unknown – of course, this is a risk, but as an entrepreneur you bet on yourself, and make the choice to wake up with a “wow” in terms of what is going to happen today.
For me, this is the time to move beyond what has become well-loved and comfortable, and to take a leap into the next chapter – the fourth in my career. First, I was an engineer who moved up through the executive ranks. Second, I focused on startups, leading two companies to successful exits. Third, was my move into academia at MIT by leveraging my startup experience. And, for the fourth chapter, I’m not 100% sure what it will be yet, but stay tuned – that is the exciting part!
Wisdom from the Women Who Support MIT’s Entrepreneurs
Today, November 19, is Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, a day celebrating and encouraging female entrepreneurship. Our student venture accelerator program, delta v, has launched some amazing female entrepreneurs – and our historical data show us that the women-led delta v companies surpass our very impressive overall stat that 3 of every 4 delta v startups are still operating. At MIT, our goal is to support all our entrepreneurs and make them as successful as possible. That is why we are thrilled when we hear feedback like the quote below – it shows us that we are succeeding in our support of diverse entrepreneurs, and neutralizing any implicit biases.
“In the Trust Center, gender, age, race, culture, even hierarchy, are invisible. It’s the only space I’ve ever walked into where all that baggage was truly left at the door. This almost disorienting sense of equality allows for a re-imagining of identity.” Joan Kelly, delta v entrepreneur and CEO of Abound
For the entire month of November, we’re profiling some of our women entrepreneurs, faculty, and Trust Center staff on our Instagram feed (@eshipMIT) with the tag #WEMatMIT (which stands for Women’s Entrepreneur Month at MIT). Follow the feed and be inspired!
Here is our lineup of stellar women supporting MIT’s entrepreneurship community and their responses to our questions on entrepreneurship. As I reflect on the contributions of these women, it is evident that the strong entrepreneurial ecosystems at MIT did not just materialize – they are nurtured, fostered, and improved upon by these individuals. They all bring a focused passion to their roles – with a lack of ego, they meet students where they are on their journeys to become entrepreneurs and help them flourish.
What advice can you share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
“Just start! Usually that first step is the hardest one. If you just start you will see that anyone can get started. Figure out what that first step is and do it. And if your first step was to make a PowerPoint, nice job doing that first step, but now get out of PowerPoint and talk to humans!!” – Kit Hickey
“Admit what you don’t know. Share your idea and take every opportunity to learn from those around you. This isn’t always a comfortable way for talented, high performers to operate. But it is critical. Rather than always looking for validation of your ideas, look for evidence that reveals weaknesses in your hypotheses.” – Megan Mitchell
“Seek a broad range of advisors, mentors, colleagues – diversity in terms of age, gender, experience, outlook on life and don’t limit it to people you think you align with – so that you are challenged to move beyond your comfort zone.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Follow your intuition and do what you feel is right. Women have stronger emotional intelligence, use this to make appropriate decisions and follow through with persistence.” – Karen Golmer
“Remain open-minded to what you learn through research. Approach research with curiosity, rather than an opportunity to reinforce and validate your current assumptions. Embrace surprising results and be ready to go back to the drawing board and adapt your solutions to a deeper understanding of the problem you’re looking to solve.” – Jinane Abounadi
“The outcome of any entrepreneurial endeavor is extremely uncertain, so you should be really excited about the journey. And surround yourself with people you like and respect, because you’ll be spending a lot of time together!” – Carly Chase
What do you believe female entrepreneurs need to do more of/better/differently to be successful?
“Unfortunately, we still need to have incredibly thick skin because the industry is not yet as equitable as it should be. Given the inequities, we’ve got to support and stick up for one another, in both small and big ways.” – Carly Chase
“Recognize that there are fewer female-backed startup companies, fewer women on Boards of companies, fewer patent holding female scientists – but don’t let that be a hurdle. In fact, find those who have or are those things – and learn from them, what inspires them, what tricks and tools have they created to achieve what they have achieved.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Really examine what YOU want out of your entrepreneurial journey. We spend so much of our lives being told what we should be, it is a challenge to break away from that and define what success is for you. Success for you may be completely different than what success means for your classmate, and that’s OK. By actually defining success for yourself, you can have a much more meaningful, impactful and enjoyable career.” – Kit Hickey
“Female entrepreneurs need to own their space, their knowledge, and their brilliance. Women have to be deliberate in the words they use when they speak about their experience and their ventures. Please don’t say, ‘If the pilot is successful, we will…” Come from an affirmative position. Trade that language for something more like: “Following our successful pilot, we will…” – Megan Mitchell
“Speak up more often (males don’t wait for their turn to speak ) – so don’t wait to be asked, offer up your opinions, experience, insight and do it in a thoughtful and measured way – so people are keen to listen.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
Female entrepreneurs need to work together and hold one another accountable when they see another not owning her own power. Women working together will elevate all.” – Megan Mitchell
“Own your ‘imposter syndrome’ and don’t let it come an excuse to demonstrate your knowledge, passion and capabilities – in fact, challenge that feeling by speaking up.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Don’t back down, instead listen with respect and learn about other perspectives. When feeling blocked or ignored, don’t speak louder to be heard – try a different approach.” – Karen Golmer
“Try not to take it personally when you hit a roadblock, or your initial ideas get rejected. Be confident in your talent and your ability to overcome hurdles and challenges. Use a network of caring mentors to get honest feedback and be open to listening and growing in the process.” – Jinane Abounadi
How do you, personally, keep inspired and moving forward?
“I look for and accept the challenges that appear – one at a time. When I end up in a conflict or uncomfortable situation, I use humor to diffuse the tension and redirect to move forward.” – Karen Golmer
“For me, the inspiration at his phase of my career comes from stepping back and hearing about stories of other amazing women that have worked hard and persevered to make a difference. I felt so inspired when I heard that there was a woman scientist (Ozlem Tureci) behind the [COVID-19] Pfizer vaccine. In my role, I see the potential of so many of our brilliant female students (undergrad or graduate) to make significant impact in the future and I will feel proud to have been part of their journey.” – Jinane Abounadi
“I love engaging with people – the passion, diversity and new ideas at MIT keep me inspired every day. Every day I learn from a student, and I love it! Being at a place where you continue to learn, can engage with amazing people, and have the autonomy to solve hard problems you are interested in, is what I love about being an EIR at MIT.” – Kit Hickey
“It is the entrepreneurs, their individual stories and passion that inspire me and keep me moving forward. Each entrepreneur has a story that connects them to the problem they are trying to solve. Often that story is deeply personal and offers me insights not only into who they are as individuals, but also the worlds in which they come from.” – Megan Mitchell
“Recognizing that I am part of a community and my contribution (or lack of it) has impact on others and what they can or cannot achieve because of my actions.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Building businesses from scratch is an incredibly difficult, gritty, and uncomfortable experience that forces you to grow in ways you didn’t even know you needed to! I’m addicted to not only the constant growth I personally get from being an entrepreneur, but also to the people who it attracts – they are the most exciting people in the world to be working alongside.” – Carly Chase
At MIT, our definition of entrepreneurship has evolved from a focus on startups to an entrepreneurial mindset – we see entrepreneurship as a skillset and a way of operating. We need entrepreneurial attributes in all our organizations – whether it is within a big company, a small company, or a university environment. These women bring that entrepreneurial mindset to their roles in helping curious entrepreneurs in corporate environments, ready-to-go entrepreneurs, and amplifiers in their communities. They cover the developing world, emerging markets, and corporate innovation. We live in a changing world with changing needs, and students need to test and adapt their entrepreneurial skills. Thank you to Jinane, Carly, Karen, Kit, Lesley, and Megan for your invaluable guidance to MIT’s student entrepreneurs! As we all work together at MIT, we see all boats rise which is what makes the MIT community an amazing ecosystem.
The pandemic affects everyone. Today, we are all dealing with a different model for living – many people are working or attending school virtually, there is less social interaction, greater isolation, more juggling of home and work duties, and of course the anxiety and pain if loved ones become sick or die from COVID-19. A study by the CDC in June of this year reported 40% of US adults are struggling with mental health or substance abuse – substantially higher figures than in 2019.
Where does that leave our entrepreneurs? Beginning in March, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship closed its doors until further notice. We are continuing to support MIT’s entrepreneurship community virtually, including via online resources like Orbit. This past summer, our delta v accelerator moved to a completely virtual experience, including online Demo Day presentations.
One question we continue to ask ourselves is: How has the pandemic affected the mental health of entrepreneurs?
Building Entrepreneurial Confidence
As we look to answer that question, we realize we were fortunate that MIT started the first self-awareness program for entrepreneurs last year – the Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (ECC) Program. We piloted this program with the delta v accelerator class of 2019 to help student entrepreneurs prioritize their own individual well-being while building their businesses. The culture of entrepreneurship celebrates working 24/7 to demonstrate passion and dedication for your business. A founder’s self-identity is often tied to the success of their startup, and as a result, entrepreneurs often experience loneliness, depression, and anxiety as they work through the normal ups and downs of startup life. This has only been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused delays, roadblocks, and failures for many startups.
Traditionally, entrepreneurs have lacked the support and tools to improve their mental well-being. The ECC pilot program, created by MIT Sloan MBA alumna Kathleen Stetson, taught MIT student entrepreneurs the tools and benefits of self-awareness; they then applied their learnings – discussing key choices entrepreneurs face, such as: taking breaks vs. spending all your time on your startup, working through limiting beliefs, considering others’ perspectives, and approaching challenges with fear or curiosity. The results were impressive, after taking part in the program 93% of participants felt that a self-awareness practice could help entrepreneurs create more successful businesses.
This year, because of the additional stress due to the pandemic, and the need for teams to feel connected when working remotely, we added two simple elements to the small groups within the ECC program that startup teams could quickly and easily implement in their own team interactions:
Red/yellow/green check-in– this not only encouraged small group members to practice self-awareness during small group, but many teams took this check-in strategy back to their teams, practicing it at the beginning of each of their standups.
A more structured way to give and receive help – after a small group member expressed a challenge they were facing, small group members asked clarifying questions rather than immediately jumping into solutions and advice. This not only made the speaker feel that they were heard, but helped participants practice active listening. They then took this back to their team interactions, helping them better understand their team members’ perspectives.
In a Fast Company article, Kathleen Stetson explains, “The 24/7, hustle-till-you-drop attitude has been a problematic fixture of startup culture for years. And now, due to the pandemic, sustaining one’s health is even harder. ‘I don’t know a startup founder who’s not burned out,’ a founder friend of mine told me recently.”
The Pivot: A Key Pandemic Strategy
“Pivot” has become the go-to word for 2020. People are pivoting with career changes and businesses are pivoting with strategies, as we all try to keep moving forward dealing with the unanticipated changes brought by a global pandemic. Entrepreneurs need to realize that a startup failure can be due to external circumstances, and the founders are not marked with a scarlet “F” for failure. A change in business strategy or taking a break from trying to start your own company is a pivot that will make you stronger the next time.
One of our delta v teams faced this type of challenge recently. Easel was a startup service that matched parents with top quality centers for last-minute childcare needs. The company was a member of the delta v class of 2019 and was faced with the tough decision to wind down the business this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic, so many people have transitioned to working from home that their childcare model was no longer sustainable. Although childcare continues to be a huge need, co-founders Neha Sharma and Michael Leonard realized they would need to shelve their plans for Easel and pivot to the next chapter in their lives. However, as delta v’s Managing Director Bill Aulet stated, “I still chalk these up to success for sure. They are much stronger than when they got here.” That strength, in part, came from MIT’s ECC program.
This type of a transition is one that often tests an entrepreneur’s sense of worth and purpose. They have put blood, sweat, and tears into their business only to watch their dreams fade. As stated in the Thrive Global article I co-authored with Kathleen Stetson, startup founders “tend to connect their self-worth and identity to their start-ups, which can lead to feelings of depression if their start-up fails.” Yet, we’ve found data affirming that when entrepreneurs understand their thoughts, feelings, and biases, it is useful in managing stress – and this is a skill that can be taught. This is why MIT is proud to host the Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication program – the first comprehensive program to address mental health challenges in the start-up community and teach entrepreneurs how to effectively manage stress.
At MIT, entrepreneurship programs run wide and deep – but across the board, student entrepreneurs know they can count on the university’s Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs) for their wisdom, experience, and advice.
We caught up with some former EIRs who have represented the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. They have been part of a rotational program spearheaded by Bill Aulet, the Center’s Managing Director. The concept of rotating experienced entrepreneurs through the Trust Center has been extremely successful – it gives students a sounding board for their questions and benefits the EIRs as well, enabling them to recharge and rejuvenate before their next venture.
Aulet likes to call the network of EIRs part of MIT’s Entrepreneurial Talent Tree. Many of these individuals have roots at MIT – they went into the world to become entrepreneurs, then touched back down at MIT as EIRs prior to moving on to do big things as entrepreneurs again, or in the entrepreneurial education community. Through this talent tree, the lessons and skills of MIT’s entrepreneurship program are widely shared, and a strong network is formed.
Elaine Chen, a former EIR who has recently been appointed as the Director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center (TEC) and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, sums up the MIT EIR experience as an opportunity to give back to the entrepreneurial community by helping them learn. “We draw on our own experiences to help students acquire an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset, which will help them succeed wherever they go in their careers.”
“We try to give entrepreneurs a safe, unbiased set of feedback,” comments Dip Patel, now CTO of Soluna. “In the entrepreneurship game, it’s very hard to get unbiased feedback. And it’s doubly hard to get unbiased feedback from people who have been operators or founders.”
“It’s better to give than to receive,” adds Will Sanchez, now at Gradient, his fourth startup. “But as MIT EIRs, we certainly receive a lot from the students as well. And we are doing this in a serving way.”
Donna Levin adds, “The EIR role enabled me to help provide students with actionable skills, proven frameworks, and a sense of urgency – what we called moving at founder speed.” Levin has moved on to head up Babson’s entrepreneurship program.
Nick Meyer, now a co-founder of Relativity6, remarks on the bond between the EIR group at the Trust Center. “Everyone’s always trying to help each other out and make introductions, and we still talk all the time.”
Introducing MIT EIRs: What they’re doing Now
As a brief introduction, here’s a quick snapshot of the former EIRs interviewed for this article and what they are doing now. Each EIR explains what they felt they were able to share with the student entrepreneurs, and what they received in return.
Elaine Chen continues to expand entrepreneurial education in the Boston area as the Director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, following her nine years at MIT as an EIR and Senior Lecturer. Chen will work with students in all majors – including liberal arts, medical, dental, etc. Building on her MIT experience, this was a fantastic career opportunity and Chen looks forward to the year ahead.
Nick Meyer is now a co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Relativity6, a company that uses AI to increase customer retention and lifetime value, currently focusing on the insurance broker industry. Key to Relativity6’s success is how to be predictive, without using personal information. The company looks at patterns developing over the course of people’s lives.
Will Sanchez is now The VP of Business and Customer Development and a founding advisor at Gradient, a cybersecurity company that is working to reimagine digital trust from the very beginning. The 14-person, Boston-based startup is still very much in the jungle stage – no paved roads – and he’s learning tons of new things to satisfy his infinite curiosity.
Dip Patel, is now the CTO at Soluna, a company launched in 2018 that is building a new type of data center that combines with renewable power plants – grid operators can plug into and turn on and off whenever they want. The company’s mission is to make renewable energy the primary power source, using computing as a catalyst.
Giving to, and Gaining from, MIT’s Student Entrepreneurs
It’s evident that this is a smart and talented group. We are fortunate each of them shared their time and talents with the student entrepreneurs at MIT. Here’s how they felt they gave back to the entrepreneurship community, and what they gained in return.
Elaine Chen comments she was known as a “hardware person” at the Trust Center and was able to leverage her background at Rethink Robotics, Zeemote, SensAble Technologies, and other hardware-related startups, to help guide students with startups in that sector. She feels that she was able to share her experience having seen a lot of different scenarios and give students a dose of reality.
Working with the students, she learned a lot about different businesses – from bitcoin to chip design – because they researched it and learned it together. She also worked with current EIR Paul Cheek as product manager for MIT Orbit, and helped build up the knowledge base with over 600 unique articles for entrepreneurs.
Donna Levin explains, “We were able to create a safe environment and meet students wherever they were on their entrepreneurial journey. From ideation, market selection, to product market fit – early stage entrepreneurs craved the ability to have a conversation about the problem they were trying to tackle today or this week.”
She was constantly inspired by the societal problems the students are tackling in the world and learning about new technology and scientific discoveries. Levin says serving as an EIR was one of the most rewarding experiences of her career.
Nick Meyer believes he helped students navigate the MIT culture and break out of the mental blocks that can come from overthinking things. Many students at MIT have such confidence in their ability to build things, and build things quickly, that they default to building instead of first figuring out what should be built. Meyer was able to aid students by sharing a lot of stories of what’s practical and what has worked at his startups.
In turn, he reports that telling his stories to the students helped him created a narrative of what happened in his career, as opposed to how the startup made him feel. “You can build up this narrative that’s not the healthiest because there aren’t that many levels of success in startups. There is kind of ‘billionaire or bust’ mentality, so, most of your time is spent dealing in failure and not reflecting on everything you’ve learned, what you’re good at, and being helpful. I’ve learned from the students how valuable all my startup experiences really were, and just who I am and what I’ve learned, and how to approach things.”
Will Sanchez sayson the first day of the delta v kickoff, he introduced himself to the cohort as, “I’m Will, New York City kid. I don’t know how I can help you, but I will ask you the tough questions – the more awkward, the better.” He reports that seemed to have resonated well not only with the delta v team but with the cohort and students in general.
What he learned from the students was that there’s so much he had to offer. “Going into it, I didn’t know what I could possibly offer these brilliant students and faculty, I just ran a small start-up that was somewhat successful. It was surprising to me how much I could add as a generalist.”
Dip Patel explains he was always extremely candid about his past and showing his vulnerability to the students – from sharing what it was like to fire his best friend to landing a million-dollar deal. “I think that what I brought as an EIR is candid vulnerability, plus realism as to what they are signing up for. And the energy, I think I brought energy.”
In terms of learning from the students, he comments, “It is extremely motivating that I get to meet students who share their dreams with me. The fact that I’m able to help them achieve their dreams, and they are grateful for that, motivates me as an entrepreneur.”
Keeping it Fresh
In other businesses, employee churn is generally seen as a negative. However, at MIT, the EIR position is designed to be part of a rotational model that keeps things fresh for both the students and the experienced entrepreneurs. EIRs find that the role of being an advisor to students lets them recharge their entrepreneurial batteries and unwind after the stress of starting a new company – and, the Trust Center gets the benefit of new and different experiences with each EIR.
Patel comments, “When you sell a company, even if you make millions of dollars, you’re losing a big piece of who you are. A lot of people say you shouldn’t connect your professional life with who you are, but it’s really hard for an entrepreneur to do that – damn near impossible. So, when that company ends, for whatever reason, it really takes a toll.” The beauty of the EIR role is that it lets entrepreneurs decompress and figure out what’s next. However, he continues, “After we started Soluna, I missed the Trust Center and wanted to get back involved, so now I’ve come back as a lecturer, co-teaching one entrepreneurship class each semester.”
Meyer says that when he was first approached for the EIR position, he was in the middle of a starting a new company, so he declined. “About three months later, I realized that I was in no mental space to be doing another start-up, because it was like my seventh or something, starting from when I was in high school,” comments Meyer. “I knew I did not have the grit or energy built up to last for another three, four, or five years working at another startup. I just needed a break.” After a short stint as a ski instructor in Switzerland, he joined MIT as an EIR for about two years. Along with helping students, it let him reflect on the best way to move forward. “I’d say MIT encourages people to move on after spending some time as an EIR. Very few people camp out for a long time.”
“MIT is a special place. It’s a place where people truly believe the impossible can work,” explains Patel, and this belief resonates in the discussions with all of the EIRs. Chen adds, “Being an EIR in MIT’s strong entrepreneurial ecosystem was an amazing opportunity.”
Sanchez reflects, “As EIRs, we’re all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors, but we all want to add the human dynamic to entrepreneurship – the stuff you can’t just Google or read about in a class.” Patel continues, “The EIRs are truly there to help, but the entrepreneurs have to ask. And you have to get comfortable asking for help – that’s another piece of advice. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help.”
As this group of EIRs blazes new trails, they are each still inextricably tied to their EIR cohort and the student entrepreneurs they advised while at MIT’s Trust Center. This network runs deep, and the talent tree continues to grow.
This summer, MIT’s delta v accelerator program for student entrepreneurs was adapted as a virtual experience. Although this called for a flexibility and creativity all around, one of the benefits was that we were able to virtually connect with some amazing speakers.
Our Founder’s Talk Series let us hear about journeys of successful entrepreneurs, the challenges they’ve had to face, and their advice for our students. This year, we were lucky enough to hear from: Eleanor Carey, an Australian adventurer who gave an inspiring talk relating to the realities of entrepreneurship; George Petrovas, a serial entrepreneur who shared his founder journey; John Belizaire, CEO of Soluna, who spoke about leadership; Perry Cohen, Founder and Executive Director of The Venture Out Project who spoke about his journey; and Ed Baker, Investor, Entrepreneur, and Growth Specialist, previously with Uber and Facebook, who talked to students on scaling their businesses.
We concluded the series by speaking with Hayley Sudbury, founder and CEO of WERKIN, a company that raises the visibility of underrepresented talent. What Hayley and her team are doing at WERKIN is extremely important because although people talk about diversity and inclusion in companies, they don’t always know what to do about it. Here’s a short recap of what we learned from Hayley during her Founder’s Talk.
Overlapping Boundaries between Work and Life
Hayley commented that the boundaries between work and life have formally collapsed since March 2020 when the pandemic hit, and we all went remote. But also, there’s a bit of a trend toward moving back to our true humanity of who we are as people and the businesses we want to build to create change.
As an Aussie Brit, openly gay, tech, female CEO, Hayley jokes that she seems to tick a few boxes around “different.” She comments that getting a more diverse mix of founders will help create change in the world.
Driving Forces for Founding WERKIN
From her job at large bank managing a £ 50 billion balance sheet, Hayley notes she looked around and realized, there were no women above her, and there were certainly no gay women.
Even for the most extroverted types, it’s important to be able to see the version of yourself in life, as you look to create an aspirational pathway for your career or the businesses that you’re building. For Hayley, this was a real motivation to kind of get out and do something different.
Creating Inclusivity and Belonging at Scale for Business
WERKIN is very much focused on helping companies create inclusion and belonging at scale. The name comes from “We Are Kin” – and is dedicated to building a kinship and community within a workplace, helping employees feel visible and supported every day.
With the death of George Floyd earlier this year, there is a greater global awareness that we’re operating in a world where not all is equal. Race is a very important conversation that’s being had right now. This has opened up a broader conversation around consumers demanding more from companies – both companies we work for, and companies that we want to purchase from. Whoever we are, and whatever our lived experience or background is, how we choose to spend our money creates power.
Millennials, particularly, make decisions around wanting to work for a purpose-led organization. They expect more. They expect organizations to not only talk about being equal and fair and transparent, they demand that they are. And they’re looking for the data to kind of back that up as well.
WERKIN has been on a mission for quite a long time around helping organizations create this and inclusion and belonging. But now it feels like there’s much more of a sense of urgency and importance. CEOs are realizing if you really want a different result, you must do different things, and this year has really tipped the balance.
It Started with Mentoring
The seed for WERKIN starting with mentoring and sponsorship, which essentially go hand-in-hand. It’s the stuff that people do for you. It’s the doors that get opened. It’s the connection that someone makes for you to a colleague. It’s those small actions.
So, we looked at ways to democratize this idea of access to the right people, so that you’re visible, and the traditional “having beers in the pub” is not the only way to build rapport. WERKIN was created help that accessibility be open and available to more people.
We then leveraged technology to manage and measure these programs and demonstrate ROI. For us, it is very much a data play, as we create this digital standard for inclusion and belonging.
Love Your Customers, Not Your Product.
Falling in love with your product is a very easy thing to happen. You can see the pain point, for example, but if you fall into the trap of being product-first, not customer-first, it’s very easy to miss the real opportunity to create change.
At WERKIN, we think about how we want to change someone’s journey inside an organization so that they are seen, they are heard, they are visible to a larger percentage of the population. But not only that, they have a clear pathway to accelerate through to the highest levels that are, obviously, economically beneficial for that individual, but also allow them to influence the outcome of the organization.
Embrace the Most Exciting Time in our Lifetimes
While it may look terrifying from an economic outlook, if you’re in the business of building new ways to do things, this is probably the most exciting time in our lifetimes. Both from a change in civil rights, equality, and the move towards shutting down this very separate life we had between work and life, and actually coming back to our humanity. This means businesses that are purpose-driven, sustainability-focused, forward-looking, tech-enabled and changing the way we work, are all presented with massive opportunities right now.
The entrepreneurial journey is certainly a roller coaster ride – enjoy it!
At MIT, the delta v accelerator is our capstone entrepreneurial experience for students. As educators, we always want to know what students gained from our programs and how it helped them in their post-MIT life. We recently interviewed delta v alumni to understand how their entrepreneurship education has had an impact on their life, and we wanted to share the findings.
We reached out to over 400 delta v alums from 2012-2019 with 60 responses.
87% Consider Entrepreneurial Skills a Core Competency
Slightly more than four out of five survey respondents currently consider themselves entrepreneurs. However, the vast majority of alumni (87%) view entrepreneurial skills as a core competency by 87% of respondents – rather than just a means to start their own business. These people may be creating their own ventures now, but they may transition throughout their careers between entrepreneurship and other roles. It’s important that these entrepreneurial skills will support them in either situation.
Respondents consider who consider entrepreneurship a core competency credit both the MIT program as well as the importance of hands-on experience to develop their entrepreneurial skillset. Many also noted they view entrepreneurship as a set of skills that must be honed through practice.
Entrepreneurship is Seen as an Important Part of People’s Identity
Many alumni view entrepreneurship as a way to solve important problems and pursue their visions. Entrepreneurship is the lens through which they approach these challenges and visions, with 62% of respondents reporting that an entrepreneurial outlook is an important part of their identity.
However, a select few respondents see entrepreneurship as a strict occupation, and not a core part of their identity. Others described themselves as entrepreneurs within their specific field or company, for example, an “entrepreneurial scientist.”
92% Say MIT Entrepreneurship Classes Support their Current Role
The classwork that delta v alumni participated in has proven to be on target. A full 92% of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed that what they learned in MIT entrepreneurship classes supports their current role, even if they are not an entrepreneur today.
Specifically, delta v alumni said the skills learned in the classroom help them in the following situations:
It gave me a playbook when I have to do things I have not done before.
I use what I learned at MIT every single day, in working with my team, financial planning/strategy, product development and management, and making sure I am looking at the right problems, in various different ways.
I focus a lot on management – and classes in particular help understand people and teams.
I need to assess new technologies according to their business promise and their technical risks.
I can more effectively voice my concerns and disagreements.
I can think about problems from a variety of different angles – rather than just technically.
The classwork provided a structured approach to innovation.
The presentation skills and network taught in delta v are still used to this day.
Entrepreneurial Skills are Marketable
Respondents feel that the entrepreneurial skills they learned while at MIT are marketable with 79% strongly agreeing or agreeing with that statement. They feel that:
The skills are an asset in their current role (86%)
The skills will be an asset in their future roles (68%)
The skills will help them in landing a future job (37%)
Some of the general entrepreneurial skills respondents bring to the table include customer identification/market research, Identifying competitive positioning and use cases, product design, business modeling, and scaling a business.
MIT’s entrepreneurship courses benefit participants by providing frameworks, structure, and discipline to their ideas. It also gave them opportunities to test out ideas and take risks, iterating those ideas in a supportive and knowledge-based environment. Many respondents mentioned the supportive delta v ecosystem and cohort, providing mentors in the entrepreneurship community and a network that gave the entrepreneurs confidence.
One of the delta v alumni sums it up nicely, saying:
“delta v gives people the opportunity to create transformational value in society. It gives young people the tools and skills they need to make that happen. The future rests on the next wave of entrepreneurs to bring about that change and growth.”
Today I put the dogs in my car to drive to a field where I could take them for a walk. I then went back to the house because I forgot my phone and when I came out, I got into the other car, and started driving to work. I was well into the next town before I realized it was 8:00, and I work from home now. It was a bit of a wake up call.
I know my mind is not in the game yet. I am running from item to item and finishing nothing. And, I don’t even have kids in the house. Like others, I do have family, community, and colleagues that I am worried about.
So, I am going to cut myself a break and figure this out.
I may need a slotted time. At a former employer, I was a slave to instant messaging, and I still hate it. I worked long hours, and I was busy, but not productive. I don’t want to make that mistake again. I don’t know what this “new normal” will look like yet, but I encourage all of you to find a way to work that works for you.
If you are home with kids, you know they need, deserve, and want your attention. If you have a spouse or partner at home and you are sharing a room or alternating rooms, you have to find a rhythm. If you are caring for an elderly parent, relative, or friend, I’m sure you’re especially stressed right now.
We all need patience. In one of my training sessions, the instructor said that you need patience and that you may not be able to do everything. They are right. This is a unique opportunity, and how can we take advantage of it? Each of us needs to figure out how it works for them and let one another know.
As part of MIT’s entrepreneurship community, we are a team that cares about each other. The work will get done as long as we take care of ourselves. So, I encourage you to experiment. If you want to partner up as we do for delta v applications, then set up time ahead so others can plan for it. If you need time for yourself, take it.
It looks like this is going to be a long road. This is a tough time, no doubt. We need to continue to deliver excellent programming, engage with students, teach in an innovative way, and continue to be a high performing team. However, first and foremost, we need to take care of ourselves, and if we all do that, we will get through this even stronger.
I know we’ve heard Rudyard Kipling’s quote from The Jungle Book, “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack,” and in this situation, I believe it is extremely apt and timely.
Those are my thoughts for today.
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments as well.
This week, I had a chance to meet with Wellesley students at an on-campus event and experience their passion for entrepreneurship. They had an excellent reason to be excited. Wellesley has just announced its Batchelor Feld Entrepreneurship Fellowship program.
Amy Batchelor and Brad Feld are known as a power couple in entrepreneurship, venture capital, and philanthropic circles. Amy is a Wellesley grad and Brad is an MIT grad, so creating a partnership between the two schools made sense for them.
As a bit of additional background on the program founders, Brad Feld has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur since 1987. Prior to co-founding Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and, prior to that, founded Intensity Ventures. Brad is also a co-founder of Techstars. As a long-time venture capitalist who has supported entrepreneurship in the for-profit sector, he also provides his expertise and leadership to non-profits. Brad holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Management Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Amy Batchelor is a writer and community leader who has been deeply involved in non-profit activity for two decades. She is the co-author of the book Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. Amy graduated from Wellesley College in 1988 with a B.A. in Political Philosophy, and she served on the Board of Trustees at Wellesley College from 2009 to 2015, and 2018 to the present.
Their generosity has enabled Wellesley students to apply to be a Batchelor Feld Entrepreneurship fellow and be full participants in the MIT delta v program in either Cambridge or New York City, alongside the MIT students.
We are excited to have Amy and Brad join our long list of generous donors that have made this program possible, including Jack and Anne Goss who helped get delta v off the ground. It is the generosity of these philanthropists and their support of entrepreneurship that allows us to continue to innovate and elevate our entrepreneurship programs.
What is delta v?
MIT delta v is MIT’s student venture accelerator, providing a capstone educational opportunity for MIT student entrepreneurs that prepares them to hit escape velocity and launch into the real world. The name delta v literally means a change in velocity, and this program has been called the gold standard of academic entrepreneurship accelerators.
From June to early September, teams work on their ventures full-time for the whole summer. Teams will define and refine their target market, conduct primary market research and build knowledge about their customers and users. They will use the Disciplined Entrepreneurship approach to building their ventures. At the end of the summer, the delta v teams formally present their startups at the culmination of the program on Demo Day.
Here are the basics to consider as students think about the program:
All Wellesley students are eligible to apply as individuals or as a team
Full participation in delta v in either Cambridge or New York City
Up to $20,000 in equity-free funding available
$2,000/month per student to cover living expenses in June, July, and August
Monthly video mentorship meetings with Amy Batchelor and Brad Feld
Join a cohort of peers changing the world through entrepreneurship
Become part strong network of delta v alumni teams with a proven track record
Thanks to our Wellesley team!
I’d like to give a special thank you to Anabel Springer and Carolyn Price at Wellesley College. These two women are co-founders of NRICH Invest, a fintech startup designed to motivate college students to invest and save, and they drove the charge for this program. The pair worked as a part of the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund’s Fall 2019 cohort, so are familiar with the benefits of the MIT entrepreneurship community, such as mentorship, funding and peer support.
In speaking about the program, Anabel Springer said, “We are ecstatic that this opportunity will provide a way for Wellesley students to engage with entrepreneurship and the larger startup community. Cheers to growing this community and supporting more women and nonbinary student founding teams. Let’s celebrate this moment for entrepreneurship!”
Carolyn Price added, “The fellowship program is an unparalleled opportunity for Wellesley student entrepreneurs to learn and create within Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s entrepreneurship accelerator program, delta v.”
In addition, Celine Christory, head of WeStart, and Tarushi Nigam Sinha, president of Wellesley Women in Business (WWIB) also supported us with this program.
As we respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and make every effort to keep our students, faculty and staff healthy, both MIT and Wellesley are conducting classes virtually for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester.
Our physical space at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship is currently closed, but we have committed to making delta v a reality this year and are still exploring different formats if they are needed. We will keep our applicants and the Entrepreneurship community updated.
This slightly scary piece of encouragement might leave you with a bit of trepidation. But, an alum of MIT’s week-long Entrepreneurship Development Program (EDP) vows this program changed her business completely.
So, what is MIT’s Entrepreneurship Development Program? Let me offer a peek inside the program from the view of a faculty member and coach. I personally find it fascinating part to witness professionals experience their “Aha!” moment during the program – that sudden moment of realization, inspiration, and insight in their entrepreneurial journey.
For the third year in a row I recently assisted in teaching and facilitating this MIT Executive Education program with Bill Aulet. The group of people who attend EDP are highly motivated, driven, and want to make a positive impact in the world. These individuals are seasoned professionals who are used to delivering results, so we needed to provide the material in a way so that it can be applied to their real world. The MIT style of learning “mens et manus” (which translates from Latin to mind and hand) is a good match for the EDP cohorts. MIT provides the theory and reinforces it with the practical.
The global life experiences in the class make for such a vibrant community. They ask questions to deepen their understanding, and by doing so, we become better educators. The 2020 week-long program had 104 participants from 27 countries and six continents. The participants listen to a MIT fire hose of information during the day and apply the lessons in teams during the evening by going through simulations with coaching from experienced entrepreneurs.
Participants come together on their first day, and we put them through an introduction, then they jump right into entrepreneurial speed dating, pitching ideas, and form teams before they leave that evening. The balance of the rest of the week consists of the Disciplined Entrepreneurship (DE) framework, coaching, and ecosystem tours. The program is not for the faint of heart. It truly is a constant fire hose of content. EDP is more than an entrepreneurial mindset as these folks are building out ecosystems, starting companies, and came to the Entrepreneurship Development Program specifically to learn Disciplined Entrepreneurship.
These entrepreneurs see the effect they can have in the world through entrepreneurship. After recovery from the week, one participant said, “I am already working on the social enterprise that I have been wanting to build for 10 years, but I didn’t know how to make it into a business.” I appreciate the opportunity to teach and coach in such a results-based program.
During the school year, 90% of my day to day is made up of teaching, leading programs, and supporting current MIT Students. About 10% of my day is working in Executive Education and community building. EDP is such an essential part of our ecosystem as it brings frameworks, application, and experience to people from all over the globe who are experienced executives but are looking to take their entrepreneurial initiatives to the next level.
However, our MIT educators are not the only ones teaching about the entrepreneurial ecosystem. In EDP, we bring entrepreneurs who have launched after participating in our various entrepreneurship programs. Companies like AirWorks, Floating Point Group, CaroCare, and Ministry of Supply. We also introduce non-MIT related support like Greentown Labs and the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC).
No one program can claim the success of any MIT startup, as it is the collective ecosystem that encourages those at MIT to reach back into the community to help others rise up. Many of the people who come to the Entrepreneurship Development Program are already active in their entrepreneurship ecosystems, bringing the Disciplined Entrepreneurship lessons to others. This is the impact of EDP. We continue to foster the community.
Here is some of the feedback from participants:
Dale Cree, CEO, 3EN Cloud ltd “At the end of the day, it was absolute proof, you need to complete the 24 steps to have any chance at all. Greatest foundation for any business journey. MIT EDP.”
Kasper Juul, Director, External Innovation at LEO Science & Tech Hub “The combination of inspiring lectures and practical exercises, with the support of experienced entrepreneurial mentors is simply invaluable. This makes for a very intense course with a steep learning curve that will push you to your limit while having lots of fun. Most importantly EPD makes you feel part of a community that will continue to support you on the entrepreneurial journey.”
Mariam AlEissa, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Research Fellow at MIT “I’m so grateful to be part of the Entrepreneurship Development Program where I learned innovative ideas can’t be delivered without entrepreneurial skills. As a Saudi woman, I’m fortunate to live in a time where women empowered as part of 2030 vision and I’m trying my best to be ready to play an active role in my community at all levels.”
Dr. Dani Abu Ghaida, Technology Leader working with Middle East organizations to create, build and launch new ventures “What particularly attracted me [to EDP] is to find answers on what I did wrong in the ventures I have led and that failed prior to EDP. EDP not only answered this question but gave me the motivation to move ahead and pursue multiple programs at MIT leading to the ACE [Advanced Executive Certificate] qualification I have now. This journey has equipped me with the tools that I need to answer all the management, strategy, innovation, operations, and supply chain challenges I can face as a venture leader, business executive, and a person who wants to change the world.”
Mary Rodgers, Innovation Community Manager, PorterShed (past participant) “Since returning to Galway, MIT EDP has become an integral part of our daily working lives. Managing a co-working Tech Hub, I regularly meet with entrepreneurs at different stages of their life cycle. I used the DE [Disciplined Entrepreneurship] roadmap to refocus the companies, and provide an objective, practical, advice and actions to progress.”
Data shows self-awareness practices helped M.I.T. entrepreneurs better manage the stress of entrepreneurship.
Anxiety and depression are rampant among entrepreneurs. The stereotype of a founder — fueled by caffeine and ramen noodles, while forgoing sleep, exercise, fresh air, friends, and family in the quest for success — has been the norm for years. It has been encouraged, and even glorified, by start-up culture.
The Inc. article “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship” explores this topic and explains, “the same passionate dispositions that drive founders heedlessly toward success can sometimes consume them. Business owners are ‘vulnerable to the dark side of obsession.’” Yet this is not healthy or helpful for long-term success.
Compounding this problem is the start-up founder’s hesitation to show weakness or self-doubt. They feel the need to project confidence for investors and employees, despite any inner insecurities. They also tend to connect their self-worth and identity to their start-ups, which can lead to feelings of depression if their start-up fails.
We also commonly see “impostor syndrome” — an unjustified, yet pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence. This can slow down an otherwise well-designed new organization by curtailing its ultimate impact and potentially even its existence. The majority of entrepreneurs have experienced these feelings, but they are pushed away and not discussed.
At M.I.T., we don’t believe entrepreneurship has to be this way. The health of a start-up doesn’t need to impact founders’ mental health. We believe self-awareness and mental preparedness can enhance an entrepreneur’s abilities. This, in turn, leads to creating a more successful business. The right tools can help entrepreneurs work through stress, rather than work in spite of it. This is a real game changer for the start-up culture.
Through a new exploratory program, we’ve found data affirming that when entrepreneurs understand their thoughts, feelings, and biases, it is useful in managing stress — and this is a skill that can be taught. In fact, 93% of M.I.T. delta v entrepreneurs believe self-awareness practices can help them create more successful businesses. Here’s more about the program:
Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication
Last year, we debuted Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (E.C.C.) at M.I.T.’s delta v accelerator. This is the first comprehensive program to address mental health challenges in the start-up community and builds on our previous smaller experiments in this area. Our goal was to teach 84 student founders and their team members tools to build greater self-awareness and to provide a confidential environment for venting and peer feedback. Stress is inevitable in start-ups, but by learning how to be less affected by that stress, participants could make better choices for themselves and their start-ups.
In the first six weeks of the program, participants were taught the tools of self-awareness, including meditation and mindfulness, and their benefits. What are the benefits of meditation or mindfulness? Studies abound, but two that may be of particular interest to entrepreneurs are:
A Harvard study on practicing mindfulness meditation for at least 30 minutes a day reports that the practice can increase grey matter in the hippocampus. This is one of the more important meditation facts, since this part of the brain plays an important role in memory and learning.
Another study, published in Heliyon, showed that practicing mindfulness meditation for a short period of time may enhance visuospatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.
In the second six weeks, they applied their learnings, discussing key choices entrepreneurs face — taking breaks vs. spending all your time on your start-up, working through limiting beliefs, considering others’ perspectives, and approaching challenges with fear or curiosity. Participants learned through readings, optional group meditation, and small group sessions where they could talk confidentially about challenges they were facing with people who could relate to what they were going through.
The results were significant. Participants didn’t just learn that a self-awareness practice can benefit them — they decided to implement it on a regular basis in their own lives. The overall experience had a measurable effect on their well-being.
The student entrepreneurs started becoming what we call “antifragile.” The term antifragile is used by professor and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book titled Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. When applying his systems analysis to humans, antifragile people are those who “grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”
A comparison of surveys conducted before and after the program, with 60 participants responding, revealed the following results:
Learning new skills
Before the program, 65% of participants had never meditated and only 21% were regularly practicing meditation or mindfulness.
By the end of the summer, 88% of had independently established their own regular, weekly meditation or mindfulness practice, despite heavy workloads and continual critical deadlines. And, their practices were measurably impacting how they worked through stress. After the program, 53% of participants were using a deliberate technique to calm themselves when in the midst of a stressful situation.
Most founders rarely have the opportunity to talk about the challenges of entrepreneurship with someone who is knowledgeable, and whom they don’t feel the need to impress. Participants in E.C.C. reported significant value from both small group discussions and optional one-on-one sessions, which were both 100% utilized by the students. The fact that very busy students took full advantage of E.C.C.’s optional one-on-one coaching, in particular, indicates the strong value the participants realized from the program.
Making better choices
We hypothesized that self-awareness tools could help founders make better moment-to-moment choices in their daily entrepreneurial lives. We found that after the program, 34% of participants who had established a meditation or mindfulness practice were more confident in their communications with others. And 40% were more aware of the emotions they were feeling, choosing to go ahead and feel those emotions rather than push them away.
The data affirms that self-awareness tools are useful in managing stress — and they can be taught. These tools help you understand your automatic responses to difficult situations and to perspectives different from your own. You start to notice problems earlier and feel more personal confidence, making it is easier to treat yourself and others with respect and to be resilient in the face of entrepreneurship’s challenges.
As demonstrated in this Boston Consulting Group article “Unleashing the Power of Mindfulness in Corporations,” meditation and mindfulness have proven positive effects in other industries — and now we have data that shows they can be significantly beneficial in entrepreneurship. Integrating self-awareness into the entrepreneurial experience will help prevent burnout, encourage better mental and physical health, and create better team dynamics. It’s great for entrepreneurs, and it could be great for their start-ups’ bottom line too.
Self-awareness education can guide entrepreneurs to not only take care of themselves, but to spread these skills across the entrepreneurial ecosystem, building company cultures that are supportive of both individual and start-up success. As M.I.T.’s delta v program works to redefine the start-up culture by incorporating positive mental health practices, we want to help entrepreneurs practice the self-awareness skills necessary to nurture their own mental health and create more successful businesses.
This piece originally appeared in Thrive Global and was co-written by Kathleen Stetson.