When I think about the future of postsecondary education, I am immediately drawn to the experiences of my middle-school boys, who want to know the ‘why’ behind everything they are learning in school. While I thought the repeated barrage of questions was initially no different than me asking my own parents ‘why’ I needed to learn algebra, I have learned that their ‘why’ questions are rooted in wanting to better understand the application of learning to something they are doing right now—not in the future. They want to know how what they are learning can be applied today to address a challenge or question.
I highlighted the connection between this type of learning approach with a focus on entrepreneurship in a piece I wrote after talking with Michael Miles at Uncharted Learning. As I sought to learn more about how entrepreneurship could be not only taught but applied in the postsecondary education context, I got to know more about the work being led out of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
I had the opportunity to talk with Tim Holcomb, the chair of the Department of Entrepreneurship at Miami University. I enjoyed the exploration of the future of learning at the intersection of traditional higher education, entrepreneurship and technology, which has been a formative part of Tim’s success with learners of all backgrounds.
Alison Griffin: Tell me about your journey to Miami University and now leading the Department of Entrepreneurship.
Tim Holcomb: I tell students all the time that this is my third career. I spent two decades in the corporate world, first as an Associate Partner at Accenture and then I started four companies—yes, at the same time! It was 1999 and the four companies were all connected to the massive infrastructure buildout to support the 3G wireless connectivity that we enjoy today. In 2001, I combined and sold the companies to Flex, a Global Fortune 500 global electronics manufacturing firm, and remained with the company to run the newly formed Network Services Division before going back to school to earn my Ph.D. I now share that experience as a faculty member and leader of the Department of Entrepreneurship.
Alison: What makes the entrepreneurship program at Miami University unique? Tell me more about the program’s development.
Tim: First, we don’t spend a lot of time teaching students about entrepreneurship; we teach them to “do entrepreneurship.” Central to the design of our undergraduate entrepreneurship program is a fundamental belief in the transformative power of learning by doing. It is definitely a mind shift and a change in the way our faculty interact with and educate our undergraduate students. We have 18 courses as part of our core curriculum and we have zero textbooks and no final exams. None. It’s not that I have a bias against textbooks or exams, but it typically takes up to eight years from the time a textbook is written to when the first edition is released. Had we selected textbooks when we redesigned our curriculum in 2015, we would have likely had to choose from textbooks that didn’t mention high-growth companies like Uber or Airbnb or emerging technologies like AR, VR, AI, and machine learning. Bottom line: we teach theory and we teach methodology. Our students get all of the tools they need to succeed, but they are immediately “put into the do.”
Second, we stress “the do” by encouraging students to engage in one or more of the 19 co-curricular programs that we support. Co-curricular programs are any activity that happens outside the classroom. One example of a co-curricular program is our support of a partnership with Techstars, which enables us to run a startup weekend each fall with upwards of 150 student participants. In just 72 hours, we will see over 20 startup ideas emerge from our students, who have worked with over 50 subject matter experts and mentors from the startup ecosystem.
Students participate in Startup Weekend, an initiative to connect learners from across campus to … [+]
A companion program to our partnership with Techstars is a program we run that focuses on social entrepreneurship. As opposed to students getting together to launch startups, we bring students across campus together to tackle societal issues. Over the last four years, our students have addressed topics such as the high rates of infant mortality among underserved populations in the Southwest Ohio area; worked with Kroger and the Kroger Zero Waste Zero Hunger initiative around food insecurity and food deserts; and last year, students worked alongside leadership from organizations like the National Homeless Coalition in Washington, D.C., the United Way, Procter & Gamble, Bank of America, Fifth Third Bank, PNC Bank, KeyBank, Cardinal Group Companies, Equifax, and more than 60 organizations across the nation to address homelessness and affordable housing.
In addition, Miami is home to the RedHawk Launch Accelerator, which has provided funding and helped launch more than 35 student-led startups over the past seven years, two student-led venture funds—RedHawk Ventures, a $500,000 seed stage venture investment fund, and the Social Impact Fund, a $250,000 early stage fund that invests in social ventures—and World Creativity and Innovation Week (WCIW), which is the largest university-led celebration of creativity and innovation in the world with more than 90 countries participating annually.
Alison: You have said that entrepreneurship programs shouldn’t just be thought of as “business classes” and that these programs should be for all students—including those in middle school and high school and students in other majors. Why?
Tim: We are at a point that when we hear “entrepreneurship” we assume this means someone is starting a company. There is so much more to entrepreneurship than starting companies. Entrepreneurship is a unique skill set and mindset, and as fast as our world is changing we need more people who possess the entrepreneurial toolkit to keep pace, adapt and address new challenges as they arise. Whether the toolkit is built in middle school or high school or higher ed—I am not partial to the grade level, but there is value in having young adults “practice” entrepreneurship in relatively low-stakes school settings.
We have also seen that entrepreneurs and business leaders often don’t come directly out of business programs. We actively recruit non-business majors for our entrepreneurship programs because we know that it’s a valuable skill set regardless of your interest or chosen field. For instance, Nicole Mustard is a 1993 Miami graduate and the co-founder and chief revenue officer with Credit Karma, which sold to Intuit for $8.1 billion. She was a zoology major. Sean Lane, a 2002 Miami graduate and Founder and CEO of Olive AI, an enterprise AI solution built specifically for healthcare, recently closed a $400 million VC round at a $4 billion post-money valuation—the highest valuation in Ohio history. He was a political science major.
Michael Marksberry, a 2015 graduate of our entrepreneurship program who also earned degrees in zoology and animal biology, is the founder of OROS, one of the fastest-growing apparel and fabric technology companies in the nation. OROS designs, develops, integrates and markets a line of extreme outerwear using its patented SolarCore technology that was developed from Aerogel, the NASA technology used for space suits, the space shuttle, and the Mars rovers. His technological advances have produced outerwear that is thinner, warmer, and more flexible than products sold by Patagonia, Marmot, The North Face, and others. All three students—now proud Miami alumni—brought technical skills and learned how to apply them in an entrepreneurial context.
Alison: How have you expanded the reach of the entrepreneurship program by bringing in more students from across the University?
Tim: No one college nor division at any university owns the franchise on entrepreneurship. At Miami, we embed entrepreneurial thinking in every major—from business, science, engineering, and technology to the humanities and the arts. In fact, many in academia argue entrepreneurship is as fundamental to a renewed and contemporary conception of the liberal arts.
To this point, we offer a co-major and not a major. When I joined Miami University in 2014, the institution offered a major and a minor in entrepreneurship, and our faculty quickly made the decision to eliminate our major. Our program is housed in the business school, but 60% of our co-majors or minors are students who come from outside the business school. Last year, we had 3,909 Miami University undergraduate students take at least one entrepreneurship course. We had at least one student in our program from all 115 of Miami’s undergraduate majors. More than 5,000 Miami University undergraduates—almost 30% of the undergraduate student population on our main campus in Oxford—either took an entrepreneurship course or engaged in one of our entrepreneurship co-curricular programs last year.
Tim Holcomb, chair of the Department of Entrepreneurship believes in the transformational power of … [+]
Alison: What about K-12 education? What does entrepreneurship look like when you intersect your program with K-12 schools and curriculum?
Tim: We have done a lot of work with a non-profit, Uncharted Learning, on the development of their INCubatoredu entrepreneurship education program that’s being used in over 250 schools. In fact, the partnership originated with Mark Lacker, one of our faculty members when INCubatoredu was launched in 2012 with Barrington High School in Illinois.
There are two fundamental reasons for our partnership and the outreach back to K-12 education. First, we believe there is a sense of stewardship to take what we know works and share it with others. We encourage students to stop thinking about one right answer and think about how there are a range of possible options and their job is to find the best one. Our goal is to get students to be comfortable with being uncomfortable in a learning scenario.
Second, we all know that nationally, the number of 18-year olds is gradually declining and expected to continue to drop, meaning that the number of high school graduates over the next decade will impact postsecondary education enrollment. We have to connect with high schools and talk about the value of entrepreneurship education with young students. In fact, as a result of that outreach, this year, Miami will have its largest freshman class in history. In fact, we have 531 students coming to Miami because of the entrepreneurship program. This class of interested students is actually 30 more than we have in co-majors and minors today. The outreach is working and creating demand for our program.
Alison: You’ve mentioned that these programs aren’t just about starting your own business—in fact most people won’t start their own business. But your program has a pretty impressive track record as far as graduates who have started a business. Tell us more about the outcomes of the program.
Tim: When I talk to people about the value of entrepreneurship education, I always start with an analysis we did at Miami University that showed, on average, students that graduated with a degree in entrepreneurship earned the highest total first-year compensation compared with students that graduated with degrees in management, marketing, finance, economics, accountancy and information systems and analytics in the Farmer School of Business. In fact, they earned almost 10% more than the average across all graduates from the business school, including some areas traditionally associated with high-incomes such as finance, analytics and information technology.
And then there are the startups and new businesses. More than 500 undergraduates developed actionable business models during the 2020-2021 academic year, and student-founders launched almost 40 student-led startups during that same period. Our alumni are incredibly active in the startup ecosystem as well. More than 250 Miami alumni have launched almost 150 funded high-growth companies in the last decade. Those companies have raised $6.1 billion. Three of those companies completed IPOs during that period as well. And six more are currently valued at more than $1 billion.
And, like Nicole Mustard and Michael Marksberry, many of those entrepreneurs had majors outside of the business school but decided to take part in our entrepreneurship program. This is the future of entrepreneurship and we are honored to be leading the way with a new approach to learning—and doing.