What if CU’s Engineering Department was more focused on entrepreneurship?

I recently joined the University of Colorado Computer Science Department advisory board. I attended a day long meeting with the department and consciously went in “listen and learn” mode, as it was my first meeting. I learned quite a bit that day that I hope to keep acting upon.  Let me tell you how I got there in the first place.

Over the past three years, I’ve been a participant in many lunch meetings where folks have wondered how the local entrepreneurial community can help the department more. Intentions have always been good and these meetings have been “brainstorming” sessions for the most part. Usually the discussion has centered around one of more of the following:

  • Wishing the department would grow enrollment and ultimately crank out more graduates into the local work force.
  • Wishing those who are graduating would have a better grasp on modern development technologies, such as web scripting languages.
  • Wondering how they could help elevate the national reputation of the school.
  • Wondering how they could help the university and the department become more focused on entrepreneurship.

In the end, the last point always seemed to be one that felt like the most important one, as it can ultimately drive the rest. I think it’s a very fair statement to say that the Computer Science department at CU is not focused on encouraging students to follow an entrepreneurial path. Ultimately, this is what we as a community should be working to change. But we can’t do it by throwing our hands up in the air and exclaiming “they just don’t get it.”  I’ve been guilty of this in the past.

Most of us have noticed the great work going on at CU that seems to emanate from Silicon Flatirons. There are now regular fantastic events and real direction and leadership coming from this group, among others on campus. A few months ago, Jason Mendelson introduced me to Tom Lookabaugh.  As I understand it, Tom had grown a little sick of hearing about these “brainstorming” sessions that were going on across town, and the fact that none of them were actually including folks from the department who could obviously be additive to the discussion. So much to Tom’s credit, he began organizing and paying for a series of small, manageable dinners with attendees from the local entrepreneurial community and folks from the CS department.

I attended one of these dinners and had a fantastic time. Tom baited the entrepreneurs into enumerating the points mentioned at the beginning of this post. He had the CS department reacting to the observations. As it turns out, most of these observations were actually assumptions.

Those dinners continued, and in fact I went to another one last night. The first such dinner I went to was respectfully adversarial, but now the tone is much more cooperative. They’ve resulted in real and successful initiatives to bridge the community and the department, such as Startup2Student and a sponsored intern program for which we raised $10,000 from Oracle, Rally, Webroot, Brad Feld, and Microsoft BizSpark to allow CU CS students to experience entrepreneurship through Techstars this summer.

As with most things in the world, the devil is in the details. When you learn about the incentive structures that are in place at CU (and most schools) and you meet the people who live and breathe the issues daily, you realize that many (but not all) of them do in fact “get it.”  There are certainly thought leaders in the department that are working to affect these very changes, and who fully understand their value. But they live in a world where things do not change overnight, and the issues are complicated.

When Computer Science and other departments in a university become an entrepreneurial engine, the results can be absolutely stunning. Just read this report from MIT if you really want to understand the scope of what can be accomplished when such a culture exists. You can be a part of making it happen here. It’s going to take a long time – probably ten to twenty years. But it will be very worthwhile if we can help bring a more entrepreneurial focus to CU.

How can you help? Keep talking about it. Keep brainstorming. But do it with the right folks and really get involved. Figure out a way to help expose CU students to entreprneurship through creative internships. Organize events targeted at bringing students and entrepreneurs together. Support on campus organizations like CUDiv and Silicon Flatirons. Reach out to me or Paul Jerde, Brad Bernthal, Kurt Smith, Dirk Grunwald, Gary Nutt, Brad Feld, Jason Mendelson, Tom Lookabaugh, and others. I guarantee you they “get it.” When the call comes, just stand up and help. It’s what we do so well as a community. Just remember, CU is a big part of that community. And it will be even bigger in the future if we focus on it.

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