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University of Texas IE Consortium: Creating a New Breed of Entrepreneurs

Sep 3, 2010

University of Texas clock towerby Carolyn Roark

Recently Dr. Carolyn Roark met with Rick Cherwitz at the University of Texas. She kindly provided the following observations and interview with Dr. Cherwitz.

Five years into my graduate work at UT-Austin, I had the disturbing realization that I didn't really fit in with the profile of my program. I didn't want what the other doc students wanted (a job at a major research institution) but was unsure how to go after what I did want (a job as an editor or as a teacher at a smaller, liberal arts school). I was looking for a way to take ownership of my own education, and for access to something that might help me find the path to the careers that really appealed to me. In UT's fledgling entrepreneurship program, I found those things; more, I encountered mentorship that encouraged me to get beyond just job prospects in my thinking about my life and where it might lead.

Eight years later, that experimental program has grown into the University of Texas Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Consortium. Their early philosophy of mentoring graduate students to become "citizen-scholars" has expanded into a radical claim: Entrepreneurship is more than a business model; it is an attitude for engaging the world. The program operates on the principle that entrepreneurial skills help individuals not only to build a career, but to build a life. Its mission is ambitious: "creating cross-disciplinary and multi-institutional collaborations designed to produce intellectual advancements with a capacity to provide real solutions to society's problems and needs."

Undergraduates have the opportunity to participate in course offerings from a mentorship course designed to help students create connections between their major, other disciplines, and their personal and career aspirations; to special classes like "Entrepreneurship and the Arts"; to pre-grad internships designed to help students decide if graduate school is right for them. Graduate students have the opportunity to mentor undergraduates, participate in special interdisciplinary research, find dissertation support and career resources, and start interdisciplinary projects of their own.

In order to meet the goal of "educating the citizen-scholar", IE focuses on a process of discovery, ownership, and accountability. Every IE student has the opportunity to clarify their own life goals, find the best career fit for their skills and desires, and discover a path to personal fulfillment and positive social impact.

IE Director Dr. Rick Cherwitz is an energetic, generous guy. He has a million ideas, and he talks 90 miles an hour, especially when discussing IE's programs and goals. Over coffee on a sweltering August afternoon, he tells me that traditional models of entrepreneurship focus on fostering a narrow skills set for use in specific segments of a market. He believes entrepreneurial habits--creative problem-solving, flexibility, taking risks, and seizing opportunities--are also a platform for self-transformation.

Carolyn: It seems that the classical entrepreneurship model is to create a technology corridor and then find entrepreneur to commercialize the technologies that are developed. How is the IE concept different from the traditional model?

Rick: IE is more of a platform, it is a pedagogy, a way of thinking about all of these things. It facilitates entrepreneurial thinking. It can be applied to disciplines, businesses, non-profits, so that they can develop things that are sustainable.

Carolyn: What is the impact of participating in the IE Consortium for students and professors?

Rick: I think that it has made more faculty aware of what is broken in education. It influences the future faculty--via education with the current students. Current professors are seeing their students benefit: becoming better writers, thinking more critically, having more clarity and drive bout their lives. It also gives them a better understanding of what has been lacking in education, causing them to re-vamp their curriculum. It is creating cross-disciplinary partnerships.

Carolyn: How have IE graduates been using their training/experience after they graduate from the program?

Rick: Everything from an arts incubator--working with underprivileged kids to use theatre to develop coping skills--to attending Harvard law, focusing on children's rights. The pre-grad internship has allowed students to find career paths--one student has decided to pursue a PhD and work on starting community health clinics. Some are students (pre-grad internship students) who want to pursue academic careers, who are able to confirm or determine which field is right for them. One student went from wanting to be a doctor to attending Harvard law. You can see individual stories on the website.

Carolyn: For students who are not at a university with a program like UT's, but who want the kind of experiences that IE has to offer, what advice would you give?
Rick: Don't buy into the model of education that says "you have to wait until someone gives it to you." Find someone to help you facilitate, someone who has the expertise you want to develop. Ask yourself how to become a change agent. Go to administrators and ask for it. Most universities could do these programs on their own.

About the Author:
Carolyn D. Roark works as a freelance writer and editor. She has held positions in industry and in the Ivory Tower. Dr. Roark specializes in written communication, creativity, and entrepreneurship. She also keeps one foot in the academic world, running an academic journal titled Ecumenica.