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By: Dr. Wasseem Abaza, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at Zayed University and the Director of the University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center.
Like many stories where people start off saying how their phones went crazy, in August of 2018 mine did. I was attending a conference in Chicago so the time difference with Dubai made it almost midnight. I was in bed trying to go to sleep when I kept receiving congratulatory emails from friends and colleagues. As I had no recollection of doing anything special recently I had to see what it was about.
An email had gone out to the whole University stating that then Zayed University President, H.E. Sheikha Lubna Al Qassimi, had named me the Acting Director of the newly formed Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. I was shocked and humbled to say the least. I had been involved in advising on the ideal candidate but never imagined I was under consideration for the position. Upon returning to Dubai I immediately had a meeting with our Vice President. He told me that Entrepreneurship was a priority for the University and he agreed wholeheartedly with my approach to emphasize action over publicity. It was then that I began to understand the significance of a University’s commitment to Entrepreneurship.
It sounds obvious to say that Universities have to be committed to Entrepreneurship but there is a difference between being committed to Entrepreneurship and being committed to Entrepreneurship. If you want to integrate Entrepreneurship into a University it cannot be a nice addition to your programming but rather a priority across the board. This means creating a flourishing ecosystem within the University that allows for Entrepreneurship to take place and fosters student entrepreneurial development. Through our experience at Zayed University, I have come up with three basic actions Universities can take to integrate Entrepreneurship within their institutions and be committed to its success.
Integrating Entrepreneurship within the fabric of a University is a large initiative and so requires a champion. This person serves as a focus and a single point of contact to filter plans and programs through for a wholistic approach. A champion should take Entrepreneurship on as a “cause” within the University, which will accelerate the implementation and development process. Additionally, this person must be an entrepreneur themselves as the experience of creating something from scratch is invaluable, specifically within a University context. This is because Entrepreneurs are experts in how to do more with less and in combining resources for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. It also helps to understand and relate to entrepreneurs’ development because they can design practical programming based on real-world experience.
I have seen Universities throw money at a center only to see it flounder or produce the very bare minimum outcomes. At our University, we followed the opposite approach. The first step was to appoint someone to take responsibility, myself, and then develop programming before money got involved. With a lot of legwork and a desire for concrete outcomes, we leveraged what was already in existence within the University rather than trying to displace it with something completely new. It’s really amazing what you can do at Universities for very little money if you are creative, have someone willing to explore and talk with all stakeholders, internally and externally, and have a unified plan. This is not easy or sometimes even possible when managing by committee. Having a champion can organize the network of resources and ideas into a single vision that makes the most of opportunities. I learned this by being surrounded by good mentors and advisers helping me through our inception and even now as we grow.
Entrepreneurs are free thinkers. They don’t operate well in existing systems, which is why they are Entrepreneurs to begin with. It is sometimes a knee-jerk reaction when creating a new initiative to create a bureaucracy around it as a check on authority. This will only tie your hands and stifle innovation. For any Entrepreneurship initiative to work you need agility and flexibility. Thus, Universities need to ease bureaucracy, not add more. One way is to remove as many levels of approval as possible, within reason of course, and have direct engagement with senior management allowing for quick guidance and decision-making. This can also mean giving the champion the ability to negotiate partnerships with outside entities with a simple and straightforward method for internal approval.
What this does not mean is to give carte blanche to do anything or, god forbid, a blank check. Universities are not cash cows and they too have to follow regulations. This is to be understood and applauded. However, there is a chance of going overboard with the regulations to ensure compliance. You do not want to regulate an Entrepreneurship initiative to death. Innovative and Entrepreneurial thinking requires leeway to find alternative means of achieving outcomes and in many cases fast implementation.
At Zayed University, the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center operates directly under the Assistant Provost for Research and Outreach, who is a senior budget manager, so financial disbursements only have one layer of approvals. Contracts or other agreements, financial or otherwise, can be introduced at the same level without the need for a long-line of managers to sign-off before it gets to the decision makers. Additionally, I as the director can be granted time with the Vice-President or Provost for strategic updates when necessary and information is constantly shared in real-time regarding opportunities that come from major external entities.
Saying you are committed to Entrepreneurship is only meaningful when you have students to back it up. It’s important to remember that Universities are not the same as independent Incubators so there is a different type of commitment students will need to start a business while balancing against their studies. The good news is that this is a great opportunity for Universities. Unlike when employed and strict separation must be maintained between work time and startup time, students can integrate Entrepreneurship into as many aspects of their education as possible. This effectively kills two birds with one stone. Students use their course work for their degrees and whenever possible as a way to advance their business plans.
A lot of business development involves understanding the whole picture and not just the technical business requirements. Students can thus apply any aspect of their majors that will contribute to the development of their businesses. Students do not need to be business majors to do this! For instance, we have an Environmental Science student who is writing her senior thesis on sustainable fashion. She is purposely using her assignment as product development research for the business she wants to start.
Additionally, offering extra-curricular Entrepreneurship programs will allow students to fill their extra time, the time they think they will have more of when they graduate, developing their business ideas ahead of graduating. It also alleviates the pressure of grades and focuses solely on business plan development, which brings their coursework into frame. These programs need to be more practical than theoretical as sitting through another ‘class’ defeats the purpose. Students need to be engaged with their own futures beyond graduation if they are going to start a business.
In my opinion, University is the perfect time to start a business. Universities should recognize that they have an opportunity to promote entrepreneurship at a uniquely relevant and conducive time in a person’s life. By being student-centered in developing programs and reducing the bureaucracy in operating, Universities can be both agile and flexible enough to produce really innovative and strong businesses while also producing innovative and strong students ready to enter the market.
Dr. Wasseem Abaza is an Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at Zayed University and the Director of the University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. He has provided various consulting services on Entrepreneurship, Social Innovation and Positive Organizational Development and worked directly with the Dubai Executive Office and the Dubai Future Foundation to develop the University Entrepreneurship Program currently operating in 6 Universities. He holds a Doctorate in Organizational Development from Case Western Reserve University and two master’s degrees from the University of Toledo in Business Administration and International Relations. Additionally, he operated two successful businesses in the US over the course of 17 years and has recently ventured into Angel investing. In 2019, he was voted one of the Top 100 Leaders in Education by the Global Forum for Education and Learning.
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