‘Entrepreneurship the Princeton Way’

Nov. 12, 2014

Published in the Nov. 12, 2014, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly

Completing my senior administrative team was an urgent priority in my first year as president, and I was delighted that Professor of Economics and Public Affairs David S. Lee *99 accepted the challenge of serving as our new provost. I have invited Provost Lee to offer his perspectives on an exciting entrepreneurship initiative he is overseeing and how it relates to his new role. — C.L.E.

Provost David S. Lee *99 (Photo by Sameer Khan)

When President-elect Eisgruber approached me in the spring of 2013 about serving as provost, I was inspired by the chance to play a central role in upholding Princeton’s distinctive teaching and research mission, and supporting our faculty and students as they strive to make the world a better place.

Early in his inaugural listening tour, President Eisgruber heard from many alumni who noticed the amount of entrepreneurship activity at our peer institutions and who wondered how Princeton could encourage such endeavors here. This interest parallels conversations that have been taking place among our faculty and students in recent years.

In response, in January I created the Princeton Entrepreneurship Advisory Committee (PEAC), a group of faculty, students, administrators, and alumni with expertise in this area, chaired by a faculty superstar, Mung Chiang, the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering and director of the Keller Center. I asked the committee to develop a vision for how the University can best support our student, faculty, and alumni entrepreneurs in a way that is rooted in Princeton’s strengths as a liberal arts institution and as a leading research university. In short, I asked PEAC how we could — to borrow a phrase from Professor Chiang — do “entrepreneurship the Princeton way.”

While the committee is still in the midst of its work (learn more at www.princeton.edu/entrepreneurship), I am pleased to provide a short preview of how PEAC has approached this question, and of the perspectives its members are adopting as they consider recommendations going forward.

In their view, entrepreneurship is not narrowly defined by just the motivation of commercializing a new technology or creating a startup that can be sold for a lot of money in a short period of time. Nor is it so broad as to encompass “thinking about something new,” which of course is the everyday business of our University.

PEAC defines entrepreneurship as the endeavors that “initiate transformative changes through risk-taking organizational actions with relatively limited resources.” The members view entrepreneurship as describing something broader than a career path focused on business enterprises: They see it as being defined by the adoption of a particular mindset, the kind that was surely instrumental in the inception and success of Amazon.com (Jeff Bezos ’86) or Teach for America (Wendy Kopp ’89), which was born from a Princeton senior thesis.

PEAC sees the goals of entrepreneurial thinking taking place not only in founding startups, but also joining early-stage companies, or innovating within large corporations, governments, or NGOs, with the common thread of being motivated by making significant, positive changes happen.

Another theme from the committee’s work is the idea that the University ought to focus not on supporting the success of projects per se, but instead on investing in the long-term entrepreneurial potential of our people. Providing outlets for entrepreneurial experiences can enhance our core teaching mission — spurring creativity and innovation, while giving students character-building opportunities for persisting through the inevitable failures that are a necessary part of entrepreneurial activity.

Finally, another key factor is the importance of building collaborations within our community of Princetonians, both on campus and beyond. Princeton does not have business, law, or medical schools, and so it is true that business plans, intellectual property law, or biotech startups have not been naturally in the core of our vocabulary. But we do have a university that acts as one school, continually striving to increase and enhance the interactions among our world-class faculty and students in our close-knit community. I am hopeful that PEAC will be able to propose the best way to draw upon the expertise of the experienced entrepreneurs among our famously loyal alumni to create a supportive and accessible network for our students while they are on campus and well after they leave. Indeed, I have seen the Princeton alumni advantage in action in the deeply engaged and committed work of PEAC, which includes an all-star alumni cast of prominent business leaders, entrepreneurs, and teachers (Lynda Clarizio ’82, John Diekman ’65, Chris Kuenne ’85, Deborah Quazzo ’82, Gordon Ritter ’86, and Peter Wendell ’72).

As the committee members have warned me, their work is itself entrepreneurial in nature. Creating an environment for “entrepreneurship the Princeton way” may have risks and will not be quick or easy. It is unlikely to go exactly as planned and will require experimentation and perseverance. But consider the prospect of exposing our students to a completely different mode of thinking and establishing a new channel that brings together the special talents and creative energy of our faculty and students — with the help of our dedicated alumni — for the purposes of making a positive difference in the world now and in the future. What could be more Princeton than that?