Four faculty perspectives on entrepreneurship

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Och Tamale reached out to four University of Redlands faculty members to explore different perspectives on entrepreneurshipwhat it is, why it is important, and how they relate to it in their everyday lives.

Weighing in on the topic are (left to right, above) Nicholas Reksten, professor of economics in the College of Arts and Sciences; Julie Townsend, director of the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies; Jim Spee, professor in the School of Business; and Jennifer Verdolin, lecturer in biology and expert in animal behavior.

What is entrepreneurship?

Nick Reksten: Most economists view entrepreneurs, in the most basic sense, as people who start businesses. That role—especially among some economists—is thought of as key to establishing economic dynamism.

Early 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter crafted a theory of capitalism that relied on “creative destruction”; the idea is that entrepreneurs come up with new ideas, grow their businesses into something new, and replace old business giants. Then, eventually, those businesses become staid and stagnant; a new generation of entrepreneurs comes up and does the same thing, and we continue the cycle and all grow more prosperous.

More recently, we think about “entrepreneurial spirit.” Economist William Baumol has written about how, in any given society, entrepreneurial people are going to work hard and innovate, but the country’s institutions shape how that entrepreneurial spirit is channeled. Ideally, people with good ideas who are interested in getting ahead create new things and new products that are useful for society. In some societies, however, it’s easiest to channel those energies into corruption, say, setting up a bribe network, or organized crime.

Jim Spee: For me, entrepreneurship combines innovation with exponential growth. It may start slowly, but the intention of the entrepreneur is to create something substantial. In the small-business literature, entrepreneurship is distinct from just starting a franchise or a family business that generates revenue and allows someone to be their own boss; these are called “lifestyle” businesses. Social entrepreneurship is a subset of the field dedicated to social change through innovation that combines nonprofit and for-profit ways of thinking.

Julie Townsend: Some people might say, “Oh, well, entrepreneurship has to do with business and making money.” Well, it might, but it might be about taking an idea from out in the world from a volunteer situation or an internship and saying, “Hey, what if we ran the classroom the way this organization runs it?” Entrepreneurship can be about bringing a new idea or an existing idea from one context into another in order to create something new.

Jennifer Verdolin: I think of an entrepreneur as someone who wants to be independent, but at the same time has an impact that ripples through a group, leading to a solution, outcome, or cultural shift. It takes a leader or an innovator or someone who wants to push past the boundaries of their experience to cause that to happen. Interestingly, innovators exist in the animal kingdom, too. A classic example is Japanese macaques—at some point, one individual washed a potato and now they all do it.

How does your work relate to entrepreneurship?

Reksten: I published a paper looking at how inequalities according to gender in developing countries can hold back economic growth because part of the population is disadvantaged. For example, if women can’t start a business, then half of the workforce is cut off from becoming entrepreneurs. Our recommendation from that paper was to think about these kinds of barriers, which can include regulations about owning land, inheriting property, and access to banking and credit.

I also focus on the environment. In California now, we as a state have strong and aggressive goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When these reductions are mandated, you create a space for innovation because firms will value new ideas and new technologies to help them meet these goals. I teach a 200-level course on ecological economics and an upper-level course for majors on environmental and natural resource economics, and this is a strong theme in both courses.

Spee: My interest in entrepreneurship is mainly on the innovation side, not the business creation side, which is why I have been teaching a sustainable innovation course in the Environmental Studies Department during the last three years. One project that has developed over multiple years of that course is a solar-powered portable shower that recycles the water, substantially reducing energy and water consumption.

In fall 2016, students evaluated the markets for fire camps and disaster response, outdoor events such as music festivals, and remote campgrounds. Last spring, physics major Nicholas Pegnato ’17 designed the prototype and obtained the components using a Kickstarter campaign and funds from his department. With a donated flatbed trailer and the help of several of our facilities staff, we built the shower. This last fall, environmental business major James Jacob Kurtz ’18 wrote his capstone paper on the sustainability of the shower’s components. This spring, Kevin Chapa ’18 is testing the ultraviolet water filtration system on the prototype.

We demonstrated the shower to Vernon L. Hoffs, director of Refresh & Renew, a Redlands organization working to provide showers to the homeless. His group just received a $40,000 grant to purchase a combined shower and bathroom. He was very interested in our system, but it still needs more testing. The shower project is a great example of how innovation promotes critical thinking and balancing of priorities.

Townsend: From an academic viewpoint, students usually arrive at Johnston because the existing categories of majors and minors don’t really fit with what they’re interested in, what they want to accomplish, or what they want to create. What Johnston enables students to do is to be entrepreneurial in their approach to education. That is, to look at the various opportunities and resources available both inside and outside the college and how they might bring them together to develop, design, and execute a new education—one that is unique to them, that forges a path to then create whatever they want out in the world.

I’m not necessarily interested in teaching students the exact skillset needed for a particular job; I’m interested in teaching students how to get the skills they need in order to accomplish what they want. Johnston students come up with ideas—whether to have an art show, radio podcast, or a conference exploring race on campus—then figure out how to make that idea happen with available intellectual, monetary, and human resources. They ask themselves, “What do I need to do, what do I need to know, what resources do I need to find in order to make this happen?” In that way, the spirit of the Johnston community is an entrepreneurial spirit.

Verdolin: Like classical entrepreneurs, scientists are always asking questions and are rarely completely satisfied. We look for new information, a new perspective, or a solution to a problem. Along with the analytical, logical side of science, it’s a very creative field. Also like a business, we manage people, raise money, balance budgets, and present our work.

When I thought about my impact as an evolutionary biologist, I would get deeply dissatisfied with the idea that when I did a research project, only about 12 people read the resulting paper. I realized my ultimate goal was getting people to care about other animals, so I had to find another way to expand my reach.

This led to my business as a science communicator alongside my scientific research and teaching. My work in this area has included two popular science books, Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships (Prometheus/Penguin/Random House, June 2014) and Raised by Animals (The Experiment, May 2017); featured appearances on the D.L. Hughley Show segment “Think Like a Human, Act Like an Animal”; and a “Wild Connections” blog in Psychology Today. It has been a steep learning curve for me to think about branding and marketing, especially in the social media sphere, but a necessary one.

What are your take-home messages about entrepreneurship?

Reksten: We’re going to have innovative people everywhere. What’s the most productive way to use them? A society can determine through the political process what the priorities and issues are and ways to channel and unleash people’s expertise in that direction.

Spee: While many people associate entrepreneurship with economic growth and development, at its best it balances social, economic, and environmental factors. Without that balance, entrepreneurship can create more consumption and waste than our planet can afford.

Townsend: Parents and sometimes students ask how Johnston students do out in the job market. They do really well, because they’re used to having to articulate clearly the skillsets they have or how they’re going to gain them. They’re also good at taking different ideas and pulling them together in an integrated way; they tend to see things structurally and organizationally, and identify where connections are being missed. With their entrepreneurial spirit, Johnston alumni often go out in the world and make their own positions.

Verdolin: Any kind of entrepreneurial lifestyle is challenging, since it doesn’t offer a lot of security. But it’s wonderful to have an idea and then see its impact—although there’s a desire to have a bigger and bigger reach.

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