Paris Reflections: Entrepreneurship Past, Present and Future

Paris reflectionsI recently had the incredible opportunity to deliver the keynote presentation at the Paris School of Business’ symposium on Entrepreneurial Research: Past, Present and Future. First, I’d like to again thank the school for this experience and my gracious host, Dr. Adnane Maalaoui, for introducing me to his students and giving this first-timer a glimpse of Paris.

I had promised to share what I learned at the symposium, and I will attempt to give you the highlights. I found that there is tremendous research being done by doctoral students who want to make an impact on entrepreneurship education as well as to share the work of the researchers who came before them. (Interestingly, entrepreneurship as a research field has only existed for the past 30 to 50 years.) The students at the Paris School of Business and affiliated universities in Europe provided a look into the future of entrepreneurship education during the symposium, and it is bright:

  • The educational ecosystems is vibrant with dedicated students and educators sharing and building on entrepreneurship research;
  • Students globally continue to be interested in entrepreneurship, but the ecosystem isn’t developed enough to deal with failure and risk in many regions;
  • It is important to remember that although at MIT we focus on innovation-driven entrepreneurship, there are entrepreneurs around the world creating small sustainable business that support families and change the lives of many (but are not necessarily innovation-driven);
  • Current cases taught to students could be updated to better reflect the changing entrepreneurial ecosystem;
  • Financing ventures continues to be a struggle particularly outside the USA;
  • Food and wine can be enhanced by rigorous debate, even in France;
  • The Eiffel Tower is even beautiful in the rain, as I learned from our final night with a dinner cruise on the Seine with students and faculty.

As an entrepreneur in a vibrant MIT ecosystem where we teach students through experience, it was inspirational to meet some of the global educators and Ph.D. students who are continually doing research that helps prepare entrepreneurs to make an impact in the world.

When I decided to pursue my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, I had already been an entrepreneur and business executive, but I joined UPenn’s Chief Learning Officer program and focused on work-based learning and closing the 21st century skills gap – this led me to my current role at MIT which is all about creating a learning environment for entrepreneurs. The Ph.D. students and faculty I met in Paris are developing competencies in new venture development, resource management, micro, social and strategic entrepreneurship using analytics/statistics to evaluate interventions and outcomes based on those responses.  I was able to connect with so much of their research both on an academic and practical level.

Another exciting development for French entrepreneurship was the election of President Emanuel Macron on May 7, just before the start of the symposium.  President Macron ran on a platform to make France globally competitive and is enthusiastic about startups in France. Macron’s pro-technology and pro-entrepreneurship views are discussed in this  article and this TechCrunch interview  conducted at the Consumer Electronics Show in January Las Vegas, attended by 190 French startups (at the time, Macron was France’s Economy Minister). It will be interesting to watch how the French startup ecosystem progresses under this new president.

I’m also sharing some resources that may be of interest:

  • My presentation from the Symposium:

How Paris & Boston can learn from each other’s Entrepreneurship Communities,
by Trish Cotter

  • A presentation by Bill Aulet, Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship that also shares ideas on:

The Past, Present and Future of Entrepreneurship Education, by Bill Aulet

  • Great accounts to follow on Twitter:
    Paris School of Business @PSBeduParis, Grenoble Ecole de Management @Grenoble_EM, and Ecole de Commerce @EDCofficiel (The first is in in English, the second two are in French – but Twitter has a handy translate button.)

    Also, make sure you are following the Martin Trust Center at MIT … @EshipMIT !

In closing, I’ll share the words of Jean-Baptiste Say the French economist who first coined the word “entrepreneur” around the year 1800:

“The entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.”

Bonne chance to all of our entrepreneurs!


Who will be among the next batch of MIT Startups?

MIT’s student venture accelerator program has kicked off for 2017!

delta v is a unique program that provides a capstone educational opportunity for MIT student entrepreneurs, and prepares them to hit escape velocity and launch into the real world.

“delta v” literally means a change in velocity, and we believe this truly captures what happens to these students when they join us for MIT’s accelerator program. (Our program was previously called the Global Founders’ Skill Accelerator – we changed the name last year.)

Our 2017 cohort of students has been selected, and they will begin go through “entrepreneur boot camp” this summer. Sorry, but we can’t yet release the startup names and ideas, but we have created an infographic to give you the big picture of our incoming group.

2017 delta v Cohort_JPEG

Mark your calendars for September 9.  That’s our Demo Day in Boston, when each of the companies will present to the public. (Here’s a recap of Demo Day 2016.)

We also went back to our 2016 cohort and asked for advice they could share. Here are some of the highlights:

Create the Right Team and Team Culture

Get to know the rest of the cohort early! I can’t tell you how much I wished I had gotten to know the other teams in the cohort earlier, and how sad it felt to begin bonding so late in the summer only to leave a few weeks earlier. Take initiative and invite other teams out! They won’t bite.
Kumwe Logistics

Invest in getting to know Trust Center staff and the other teams; they are as much of a resource as the funding.

I recommend taking free personality tests and working as a team to identify work styles and potential weaknesses that both individuals and the team as a whole may face so that when these hard times hit, and they will hit, you know what to expect and can band together to push through.

As we have moved forward and made some progress it has become even more evident that VCs and investors, especially in the seed round, are investing as much, if not more, in the team than in the business idea.
Kumwe Logistics

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

For international team, communication is your best friend. Have a WhatsApp group, have a daily Skype call, do whatever it takes. It’s impossible to be talking too much to your fellow team members while you’re geographically separated.
Kumwe Logistics

Show up, Be Present & Network

Be present as much as possible, even if the attendance requirement says only 2 people have to be there.

Go to every event possible. Even if you think you already know the topic, go to it anyways. Delta V brings in people at the top of their field to share their insights with the teams, take advantage of that! Other people would kill for that opportunity.
Kumwe Logistics


Everyone has this big fetish for cool-sounding technology, especially at MIT. Talking tech helps wins competitions, but at the end of the day the only people you really need to impress are your customers (with a good product, not with the underlying tech!)
dot Learn

Promote Increased Value over Cost Savings

If I were to start over, I’d promote the time [our services] save their staff, the benefit of dealing with one company for all their needs that’s responsive, proper billing, and other similar points that our clients tell us they appreciate and are worth value [rather than just cost savings].
Kumwe Logistics

Perfect Your Pitch

One of the best things we got out of the whole exercise was the final pitch document and presentation we had. The same pitch and document has helped us get $100,000 from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID UK, along with the money we have raised from investors.

Anticipate Change & Challenges

Company culture is created predominately through the personalities and work styles of the founders and early employees. Make sure to spend time understanding what sort of culture you’re looking to build and understand that the good comes with the bad.

There WILL be challenges and failures that lie ahead and it’s helpful to understand how your team will work to overcome these hurdles.

Prepare for After MIT

Treat Board members as valuable mentors even after the program is over.

Take advantage of the support Network at MIT while you can, and if you’re leaving Boston, try to build a support network (friends/entrepreneurs/etc..) wherever you go. The struggle is real, and the real world can be cold and lonely.
dot Learn

Great advice from our last group of entrepreneurs!  I’m looking forward to spending the summer with our incoming class.

Innovation: 2017 Style

fuse_2Here in Massachusetts, we tend to get somewhat of an inferiority complex. Maybe it’s those Puritan roots. We have it stuck in our heads … “Boston’s not as big as NYC” or “We’re not as innovative as Silicon Valley” …

Wait?! Bloomberg says that Massachusetts is the most innovative state in America … for the second year in a row? That’s pretty cool. Take that inferiority complex!

According to the Bloomberg ranking, Massachusetts scored 95 out of a possible 100 points, followed by California, Washington, New Jersey, and Maryland. The six equally weighted metrics included:

  • R&D intensity;
  • Productivity;
  • High-tech density;
  • Concentration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) employment
  • Science and engineering degree holders; and
  • Patent activity.

Massachusetts earned the ranking by producing more science and engineering jobs and by creating jobs in those industries. Current figures show a 2.9% unemployment rate in Mass, compared to a 4.6% national average. The state’s universities were also noted, included Harvard and MIT.

At MIT’s Martin Trust Center, we have the privilege of seeing that innovation every day.  And, it’s the type of innovation gets spread around the world. CES, the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is known for attracting and showcasing the world’s latest and greatest consumer innovations.  This year, atwoboo least eight companies with MIT roots showed off their cutting-edge products at the show. One of those, Woobo, is an alumnus of our MIT student venture accelerator program (now known as delta v). The company is using robotics and artificial intelligence to make a smart “imaginary friend” for young children and plans to launch the product this year.

Another MIT accelerator program alumnus, Accion Systems, was honored recently in BostInno’s 17 Startups to Watch in 2017. Definitely not in the consumer accionrealm, Accion is developing revolutionary propulsion for satellites which will make space more accessible and affordable across industries. The company itself is seeing quite a bit of propulsion here in Massachusetts, with funding from the Department of Defense and a Series A round last year, along with numerous awards.

img_0424And, here’s something pretty cool that’s happening in innovation right now: is MIT fuse program.  MIT fuse is the Trust Center’s entrepreneurial program that takes place every January during Independent Activities Period (IAP), which is January 9 to February 1 this year. The MIT fuse teams essentially take over the Martin Trust Center during these three and a half weeks, receive mentor advice from our Entrepreneurs in Residence, and learn from startup founders who have preceded them.

One intriguing company in the current MIT fuse program is Waypoint Labs.
Waypoint is building a platform for creating and extracting spatial data and insights for augmented reality (AR) applications. One possible applicawaypoint-labstion is using the Microsoft Hololens to enable non-pharmacy hospital staff to fill prescriptions quickly and without errors. The company was invited by AT&T to participate in its inaugural AR/VR Challenge at CES 2017, where it won the $20K grand prize after demoing its prototype to over 250 conference attendees.

At MIT, the students we mentor want to make a positive impact in the world, and our programs give these students the opportunity to do so.  Here’s to an innovative 2017!

Accelerator Programs in the U.S.

In my role as Entrepreneur in Residence at MIT and Program Director for MIT’s Global Founders’ Skill Accelerator (GFSA), I’ve been researching accelerator programs worldwide, and I thought I’d share some of that research in a series of blog post. This is the second post in the series; read the first post here.

startup picIn recent years, many global accelerator programs have launched in the US, and Silicon Valley certainly takes the lead in this effort. The original accelerators such as Y Combinator or Techstars are still regarded as leaders, followed by many other programs as role models.

However, the sterling lineup of mentors in Techstars or YC makes these two programs highly desirable to both entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists. As literally hundreds of startups from all over the globe appear everyday looking for ideal accelerators, it is prudent to know that joining an accelerator program in itself does not guarantee success.

Incubators versus Accelerators

When Paul Graham created the Y Combinator program in 2005, the program was thought of as an incubator, which largely promises office space in exchange for equity. However, later this program developed into a strong accelerator displaying marked differences from the incubator model. While both the incubator and the accelerator share a common mission of guiding a startup, the main differences between the two are the applicable time periods which are short and defined in case of accelerators; time-bound funding in exchange of equity for accelerators; and the rare incentive of A-list mentors offered by most accelerators.

The 500 Startups accelerator network has connected the Silicon Valley with the rest of the world in an excellent manner. Catering mostly to international startups, this program is doing a commendable job of supporting startup founders from abroad to get their feet wet.

Accelerators Who Take Equity versus Who Don’t

It is widely known that YC takes 7% equity, 500 Startups takes 5%, but there are some accelerator programs who take as much as 50%. This practice may make it difficult to raise another funding round later with less equity to offer VCs.

On the other hand, the programs offered by top university campuses like MIT, Stanford or Harvard do not take any equity from student companies. Non-academic accelerator programs like Mass Challenge also do not take any equity. The programs who do not take any equity usually demonstrate strong networks with the VC community and other corporate sponsors for fund raising issues.

Academic vs. Independent Accelerator Programs

The accelerator community in the U.S. can be broadly divided into two segments: The accelerators owned by university campuses and the independent accelerator programs. For additional information, budding entrepreneurs with startup ambition should refer to this Mashable article: The Pros and Cons of Startup Accelerators.

The accelerators who take equity believe they are the ones who will finally survive; they say accelerators who have no financial stake in a startup are simply there for public relations and no real financial growth for the company. Yet, educational accelerators are driven by universities, with unique capabilities and access to talent. My next post will delve into some of the best academic accelerators in the U.S.

If you want to read my next post in this series check back here on my blog or follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter, as I will post about new updates there as well.


Closing the Opportunity Divide … one person at a time

Francilia Jones, my Year Up mentee

Francilia Jones, my Year Up mentee

Watching your child succeed at something important in life tends brings that choked up feeling – pride swells your chest and you blink away a tear or two. Well, Francilia Jones is not my child, but I’ve mentored Francilia over the past year, and I felt all those same emotions as I watched her give her graduation speech at this year’s Year Up graduation ceremony.

Year Up is an organization that empowers urban, low-income young adults to go from poverty to professional careers in a single year. As a mentor at Year Up in Boston, every year I’m amazed at the transformation of these young adults. They come to the program with talent and motivation – but, unfortunately, lack skills, experience, and opportunities. However, with the help of Year Up, these young people can gain six months of professional training in IT, Finance, or Customer Service, a six month corporate internship with a respected company, and up to 24 college credits – all in the course of one year.

The program’s success rate is impressive; 85% of Year Up graduates are employed or attending college full-time within four months of completing the program. Those employed earn an average starting salary of $16 per hour – $32,000 per year for salaried employees.

In Francilia’s case, her family was supportive and she was accepted into her dream school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. However, a family illness and other misfortune meant that she could not afford to attend the school. She tried working to save money to do it on her own – and one day, Year Up’s Director of Student Services for Boston, Rob Fladger, entered the branch of the bank where she was working and told her she looked miserable. He told her about Year Up and she even attended an information session.

However, Francilia still wanted to do this on her own and tried attending college for one semester while working 70 hours per week. Needless to say, that didn’t work out. She still had Rob’s card and gave him a call. By joining the Year Up program, Francilia completed an internship at Harvard University and gained a passion for technology. She now hopes to attend community college and then gain her bachelor’s degree in computer science. She is also looking to work part-time to fulfill her goals. In the entrepreneurship program I help to lead at MIT we call it “escape velocity” and Francilia is on her way, but finding a job still is not easy.

In her graduation speech Francilia states, “I always knew that I could be more than by current situation. I always knew I could be better than my struggles.”  I couldn’t agree more.

I believe this really summarizes the Year Up program, and how it helps bright, motivated young people overcome their current situations. Year Up calls this the “Opportunity Divide” – millions of young adults in the U.S. have talent and motivation, but lack opportunity. They estimate that 6 million bright young people are without access to opportunities to connect to the economic mainstream. Meanwhile, over the next decade, American companies will face a shortage of over 14 million qualified workers. Year Up’s mission is to close the Opportunity Divide.

I wanted to share this experience because being a mentor is one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve done. It puts your personal issues into check, and you just feel good helping to guide someone who is so motivated to succeed. Year Up is always looking for more mentors, so I encourage others to share their time and talents and learn what it takes to become a mentor for Year Up – they have locations in many cities throughout the U.S.

Plus, I’d also like to put a shout out to my network – Francilia is looking for her next job opportunity, preferably in the technology space. Any interest in hiring a hard-working “go-getter”? Please let me know and I will make the connection.

Year up logo

The Top 5 Characteristics of Winning Startups

startup-signI was recently invited to speak to students involved in a local university’s entrepreneurship program. In preparing my presentation, I reflected on my startup experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Truthfully, my experiences with startups were mostly very good. I was extremely fortunate to be part of the leadership team for two successful technology companies. I helped to steer them from the start-up stage through the entrepreneurial process and into rapid growth, and each was a great ride. Both companies had public offerings and were ultimately acquired by leading companies in their industry, which is especially remarkable given that 75 percent of all startups and 90 percent of all products fail, according to Harvard Business School statistics.

Why did these two companies prosper when so many others fail? Here are the top five characteristics of winning startups, based on what I’ve learned and witnessed over my career:

Solve a Customer Pain Point with your Product – Build a product that customers can use. Sure, it sounds simple, but you need to balance listening to your customers with keeping an eye on new technology. There’s an old adage that if Henry Ford listened to his customers they would have ended up with faster horses. This does have some truth to it – sometimes customers don’t know how new technologies could solve their current problems – but they do know the result they want. So, listen to their pains, and see if you can think of new ways to solve them.

Companies also need to balance adding technological features with usability. Most customers won’t use every bell and whistle that is included in the product, but they do want the product to be easy-to-use and intuitive. The bottom line is that you need to deliver a positive customer experience. An advantage I had with both startups was that as we were developing the right product at the right time, we had the ability to change course as needed – or to “pivot” in today’s terminology. The ability to be flexible and strike at the right point to continue market share and revenue growth was essential.

Tight Team Environment – It is vital to build a good core group of people early. The leadership team is important, of course, but every employee also needs to be part of an innovative and collaborative culture to help the company thrive. In the early phases of building a company, I found that the first 50 employees were a very tightly knit core group. But then we needed to scale and replicate that success, so that when we doubled our staff that same culture survived. Nurturing, training and retaining employees were fundamental elements to our success, as was confidence in the company’s leadership.

Leadership, trust and strong opinions are key elements that create a positive energy and personal commitment to the company and to each other. Sure, a strong opinion can sometimes cause conflict, but it exemplifies the passion of the company’s employees. As long as there is a forum for communication, this can be a constructive force for growth.

Relentless Customer Focus – In addition to ensuring that your product solves a customer pain point, you need to focus on your customers as your number one priority. One of the ways we listened to our customers was to bring them into our company-wide meetings to share their experiences. In our weekly “Pizza Meetings,” we discussed Product, People, Prospects and Profits to give the entire team the big picture, and customers would often join us. It was important to hear the good and bad about the product and what our customers hoped to do with our solution in the longer term. This had profound effects on the developers to develop more modules and tight code, because it let them see how their work directly affected the people who used our products.

Operations as a Company Backbone – Although it’s not always seen as the most glamorous function, Operations is the workhorse of any startup. From the beginning, we linked Operations into tech support, manufacturing, logistics, and tied it closely to new product introductions. That way, if a customer had a problem with a product, we not only fixed that problem, we tried to figure out why this issue happened and make an operational fix within the company so that the larger problem would be solved long-term. When small companies are growing rapidly, a learning cycle needs be put into place to feed “lessons learned” back into the organization. This prevents repeated errors and was a major factor for our success.

Start Selling Early –
I can’t overemphasize the importance of establishing an excellent sales force, and the need to start selling as early as possible. At one company, we needed to get customers on board before we could get funding. It was really a leap of faith, but our early sales team delivered. We couldn’t get Series A funding until investors saw that we had customers. There was little angel investing at that time and early stage investors were very conservative. Therefore, our early focus on sales was critical to our future funding – as well as our revenue.

Although I started this post by talking about the successful exits of these two companies, it is important to build your business as a strong company that can stand on its own, rather than planning a specific exit strategy. The right product, a tight team and a focus on customers, tied together with strong operations and sales will be a solid foundation for success.

Corporate Communication and the Sound of One Hand Clapping

There’s an irony in writing blogs. Here I am, at some potentially great distance away from you, in time or space, sitting in front of a computer, and yet anticipating a conversation with another human being (That means you). If I didn’t have that genuine feeling of connection, I think I’d probably never blog at all. I wouldn’t read so many blogs, either.


What draws us to blogs and social media? I think it’s almost always about connectedness. There is a natural human desire to connect. After all, we’re social animals. Solitary confinement is considered a form of torture in many countries for this reason.

While the instinct to connect is as natural as our need for food and shelter, it is one that is typically stifled in corporate environments, and that’s a problem. Too often, corporate communication is a monologue, not a dialogue. Business leaders tend to forget how our successes are often built on ideas generated by others. Communication is viewed as just another resource used to control, instead of engage, employees. Too many American business executives see “discussion” as an exercise in public relations, just another way to gain the upper hand.

In reality, breakthrough ideas tend to come from outside of traditional control-oriented companies. The workers who have the best ideas in these organizations are encouraged to communicate those ideas, to “shake things up” instead of being treated as though they don’t have a right to be heard.

IBM’s Executive Insights program is an initiative that tries to level the communications field, encouraging executives to use discussion as innovation resource, not a cattle prod. It’s a three-day program which gives real practice in social cognitive theory with the purpose of improving communication at every level.

Open Communication Requires Time … and Even Space

Open dialogue, trust, and respect. These are the three essential ideas of great team coaching and scaffolding, to build teams that “talk smart,” which in turn helps broaden the way employees expect to be heard. IBM has a vision of creating what I call a “smart talk zone.” Communication is part of the 360° feedback concept in IBM’s Executive Insights program. 360° feedback relies on gleaning insights from employees as well as managing executives to create a more complete, useful and actionable review. Few things have worked as well as 360° feedback to open deep dialogue. A 360° concept can clearly increase self-awareness skills while also helping to correct deficiencies in management through communication.

One thing we need to do more often is to create actual workplaces with physical environments designed to optimize open communication. Lev Vygotsky has even said that we must build specific “zones” to make this happen. Vygotsky, who survived the Russian Revolution, knows something about chaos and creation, silence and survival. The idea of building an actual, physical zone of communication is something that could truly revolutionize the way people expect to be heard. For now, IBM is attempting to create these kinds of creative communication zones with speakers bureaus that engage every level of management. Perhaps most importantly, IBM is committed to investing time in the process, too, since the workshops can last three days.

A college workshop on communication once left me with some valuable and lasting insights. As an example of how to communicate, a professor gave a sample lecture. I noticed a friend of mine taking notes on what he was saying – and I slipped a note to my friend: “Don’t write what he says…write down how he says it.” Context is essential. We value the “Eureka!” moment so much that we forget it almost always comes as part of a broader conversation. An unshared idea, I discovered, was the sound of one hand clapping. We tend to follow structure and miss meaning. When we consider and share ideas with others in context, we perceive. We create.

Being overly or rigidly structured, especially in how we communicate our goals, is why we so often get to the wrong places when we’re driving. After all, we know where we’re driving, even if what we know happens to be wrong. Once a company believes it is successful, it tends to become risk averse. It tends to blindly follow the pre-conceived directions without questioning them anymore. We can see that complacency in communication, in the way that innovative, “outside the box” communication can become stifled in a successful company. As corporate drivers, we may still feel connected to the steering wheel, but we forget the view, the intricacies, and the nuances that surround us.

Within the typical established corporate environment, we often tend to discount the ideas of people who appear to be unstructured in their communication. We want it to be sharp, efficient, to the point. Anything else seems like a waste of time, and hence a waste of money. But something can be lost in the equation: creativity.

I would challenge people to look anew at the shortcuts they use in daily communication. Are you able to consider new ideas with an open mind, even when these ideas may not be fully formed? Are you able to help cultivate and nurture ideas without controlling them? Are you empowering your employees with the assurance that they can run with an idea once it is fully formed? After all, James Laird at Clark University showed through his research that lasting positive communication relies on more than just words, but on action as well.

I remember as a child, seeing an old wooden plaque on a small business owner’s desk. It said “You ain’t learnin’ nothin’ when your talkin’.” We tend to learn best when we learn to listen. That’s easier said than done. But businesses have a lot to learn from their employees. Paying attention and empowering the exchange of ideas is a smart way for organizations leveraging a precious asset – and it’s the natural thing to do.