COULD THE EXPERIENCE OF COVID-19 CHANGE ENTREPRENEURSHIP EDUCATION FOR THE BETTER?
As the world has shifted on its axis the past few weeks, I’ve watched students and colleagues shift and adapt with it. I’ve seen inside their homes – and hearts – as we have all responded and adjusted to the world’s new normal of physical distancing, endless hours at home in space less than ideal for working, and 5+ hours a day on Zoom …. And all this while I’ve been worried about the wellbeing of our Legatum Center Fellows, their ventures, and their dreams of being entrepreneurial leaders.
Perhaps somewhat ironically, students were sent home and informed that classes would go online just as Sloan was entering SIP week (formerly known as Sloan Innovation Period). As classes were canceled and Spring Break travel plans put on hold, I watched – with awe and relief– as a cadre of young entrepreneurs took the leap into new ventures, or pivoted what they were working on in order to leverage the unanticipated free time to keep their minds and their entrepreneurial spirit stimulated. Rather than become paralyzed by the uncertainty, they moved forward with purpose and conviction. Others replaced trips to do primary market research with thoughtful plans for secondary market research, participated in hackathons, made compassionate decisions about financially supporting their company’s contract workers, and teamed up to lend their experience to budding ventures when market conditions forced their company operations to grind to a halt. An example of this adaptive spirit was demonstrated by fellow Anatole Menon-Johansson who tailored the technology behind his venture SXT – an app that allows individuals diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases to anonymously inform partners of infection and points of care – to develop CVT, a COVID-19 contact virus tracker.
So, in this new reality, why/how are these young innovators and entrepreneurs continuing to move forward? Are they just more resilient and comfortable in uncertainty? Most likely, yes. The majority of our fellows originate from markets largely defined by uncertainty. But I also believe their entrepreneurship education, both curricular and co-curricular, has contributed significantly to the continued innovation and venture creation I am witnessing right now. In the classroom, they are exposed to frameworks, research, practical tools and techniques that allow them to identify new opportunities and execute pivots quickly and smartly. The in-class exposure to entrepreneurial leaders willing to share the details of their business models provides them with countless examples to inform their own business decisions. Workshops with functional experts complement classroom lectures. MIT’s countless competitions and hackathons push students to seek answers to the hard questions and solutions to difficult challenges put in front of them. The psychosocial support they receive from caring, dedicated staff and faculty cross-campus assures them that in failure exists opportunity to learn, not a cause for shame. It is this full complement of entrepreneurship education that is contributing to what I am witnessing.
As we moved out of the physical walls of campus, however, we had to think not only about how to deliver existing curricular and co-curricular programming virtually, but also how to additionally support our student entrepreneurs in a time of extreme uncertainty and crisis. Zoom has worked well as a platform for class delivery; the introduction of icebreakers to the start of class, and lots of structured time in smaller breakout groups has continued to maintain the community support we foster through the Legatum experience. We have also added additional small group check-ins and sessions to account for the loss of impromptu chats that would happen in the Legatum space. We have also leveraged digital tools like Slack and WhatsApp to connect our alumni networks and students to one another and the Center’s expert network, leveraging technology to build additional bridges to sources of knowledge and experience. Resources have emerged across campus to bring additional support and inspiration to the entrepreneurial community. The Martin Trust Center, for example, has its Antifragile Entrepreneurship Speaker Series, open to the full MIT community. Of course, anyone who has spent any time at MIT knows that the campus environment fosters a unique culture of innovation and entrepreneurial initiative. And it wasn’t long before we saw that MIT spirit emerge through online events and activities. In the earliest days of the lockdown, more than 1,500 people participated in an COVID-19 hackathon, from which fantastic ideas and solutions emerged. The outcome inspired the MIT Africa Club to begin organizing an Africa-specific hackathon. An exhaustive list of activities is maintained on MIT Innovation Initiative’s COVID-19 Rapid Innovation Dashboard.
As the dust continues to settle at MIT, and the announcement has been made that we will be fully online at least through the summer, new ideas continue to emerge across campus for how we can support the development of the next generation of entrepreneurs. As these ideas percolate, I can’t help but see the opportunity for the Legatum Center to accelerate its work to support entrepreneurship innovation and education globally. Virtual accelerators, workspaces, and bootcamps allow for the possibility of student entrepreneurs around the world working side-by-side. Imagine the transfer of knowledge, insights, and local context that could happen in an accelerator that sees students from MIT working alongside students at Asheshi University in Ghana or Monterrey Tech in Mexico? Remote internships could allow talented undergraduates from MIT to work for companies in places they previously weren’t prepared to travel to or explore; or for MIT startups to provide opportunities for a promising young coder in Lagos without the resources to travel to work from her home on a Bangkok-based venture. Faculty, who have already become more comfortable and creative with synchronous online education, will be able to visit classrooms, or homes, anywhere in the world without the expense or time spent on travel. As this pandemic has forced us to be more comfortable working and learning in an online environment, the Legatum Center has the opportunity to build virtual pathways to and from MIT that will not only support our students’ development, but the development of entrepreneurship and innovation everywhere.
MIT’s unique spirit of innovation and rich offering of classes, programs, and resources have laid the groundwork for current students, staff, and faculty to operate with resilience and creativity in this unprecedented time. The rapid innovations we are seeing as changemakers around the world adapt in response to the COVID-19 crisis will offer rich case studies for teaching future generations of students on how to better prepare for and build businesses that contribute to a less fragile global economy. Beyond this, however, we—as educators—have an obligation to learn from these case studies, as well. As new students and stakeholders join the MIT community, we must be diligent in our efforts to provide them with the type of education and support that will ensure they, too, are beneficiaries of that MIT spirit and ethos that allows for greatness in times of global uncertainty.