My entrepreneurial journey began on a chilly January morning in 2008, not long after my daughter, Elle, was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes. She and I were in the kitchen of our New Hampshire home getting ready for breakfast. Elle, who was eight at the time and the eldest of four children, reached into the cupboard and picked out a box of Cheerios and a bowl. I handed her a measuring cup, calculator and notepad.
The realities of living with type-1 diabetes—a chronic, autoimmune disease that destroys the body’s ability to make insulin—were just starting to sink in. Fixing a bowl of cereal was no longer a simple process; it was maths problem. Together, we needed to figure out the amount of carbohydrates in the cereal and milk and then determine how much insulin Elle would need to inject to turn that food into fuel. We also needed to keep track of the food she was eating along with her physical activity and blood sugar levels to avoid dangerous high and low blood sugars. Having blood sugar that is either too high or too low can cause serious complications and could lead to death.
Elle and I got to work but she soon became frustrated. She threw the cereal box across the room; Cheerios flew everywhere. “Why does this have to be so hard?” she asked me through muffled tears.
The first thing an organization can do to nurture innovation is to tap into its own human capital. At a high level, all organizations care about ideas, and more often than not, in corporate settings, people already have ideas. Staff have expertise, know the customers, and throughout the organization they can interface with interesting sources of data and information. It’s just that their day-to-day requirements do not allow them to execute. Slack time can be an important lever for incubating creativity and a meaningful way for executing ideas employees have had in mind for some time.
But if you ask employees to be entrepreneurial, it’s not same – they may end up directing their own unit, but not building and scaling a multi-billion dollar start-up. It’s hard when you have the safety and surroundings of a large organization to act like entrepreneurs who have to attract capital from outside. The challenge is once you identify talent and the ideas inside to incentivize to execute an experiment as though it were a start-up. Perhaps the biggest organizational change is to think like a small start-up.
From an organizational perspective, firms can learn a great deal from university accelerators. At MIT, we have Global Founders’ Skill Accelerator, where we get students with good ideas to scale businesses. The interesting thing is that students who have no experience of entrepreneurship get feedback and advice from a set of seasoned entrepreneurs. Similarly, an enterprise may have skills and expertise on the tech side, but no track record of taking an idea and scaling it to a multi-billion project. The challenge is how to recruit entrepreneurs to train employees with the good ideas to take them to the next level. Read More »
With MIT’s delta v student venture accelerator, the Martin Trust Center MIT Entrepreneurship welcomes a new group of students each summer and puts them through “entrepreneurial boot camp.” I want to give you a glimpse at some of the inspiring female entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, and how they are succeeding at what they do, shattering glass ceilings at every level:
• Take Natalya Brinker, CEO of Accion Systems, an MIT PhD graduate and a member of the 2014 accelerator cohort. Accion is developing revolutionary propulsion for satellites that will make space more accessible and affordable across industries. The company itself is seeing quite a bit of propulsion receiving funding from the Department of Defense and a Series A round and winning numerous awards.
• Or Katie Taylor, the CEO and co-founder of Khethworks, who earned her Master’s degree from MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2015 and was part of the accelerator program that summer. Khethworks is a company that supports farmers in eastern India, where more than 30 million farmers tend to an acre or less of land. The company has developed a solar-powered irrigation system that lets these farmers affordably cultivate year-round.
• And Steph Speirs, a member of the 2016 delta v group who is co-founder and CEO of The Solstice Initiative, a nonprofit with a goal of providing solar power to underserved Americans by partnering with communities to share solar power. Speirs graduated from MIT with an MBA this June, and was honored as an Echoing Green Fellow and Soros Fellow during her time here as a student.
President Donald Trump’s memorandum establishing the White House Office of American Innovation sounds great. It appoints his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as its head and aspires to “bring together the best ideas from government, the private sector, and other thought leaders to ensure that America is ready to solve today’s most intractable problems.”
We hear lots of talk in the business community about the need to innovate to stay ahead of the competition. But what does “innovation” really mean? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a new idea, device, or method.” If Trump and Kushner intend to import the private sector’s ideas, devices, or methods into government, we should take a closer look at how innovation works in the business world.
The federal government is a large organization; in fact, it is the largest employer in the U.S. followed by Walmart. So if innovation is going to work in the federal government, it would need to follow the same model of innovation at large private sector organizations.
But the tough truth is that it’s really hard to innovate in large private sector organizations. There are really only two ways to do so effectively: acquire those that innovate or innovate internally.
We hope you enjoy the latest installment of the MIT Sloan Experts Podcast series!
The third in our series of MIT Sloan Experts podcasts features Chris Knittel, professor of applied economics at MIT Sloan, talking about his latest research on racial bias in the ride-sharing industry.
Knittel’s research focuses on how Uber and Lyft are failing black passengers and what to do about it. Listen to this brief podcast and find out how Knittel came to his conclusions, what his findings say about drivers who cancel on customers with names that generally indicate they are a person of color, and what takeaways Uber and Lyft can garner from these findings to improve.