Tom Katona had been thinking quite a bit about a simple question. An assistant professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he had seen a number of his students launch promising ventures, only to have them fail—as the vast majority of startups do. “And I was wondering, what are these people going through?” he recalls. “Are they feeling like they’ve let people down? Are they able to process the experience and maintain the mindset that starting the venture was supposed to help them develop?”
At the VentureWell OPEN 2019 conference in Washington, D.C., last March, Katona ran into two acquaintances who he thought might have some answers: Joe Tranquillo, a professor of biomedical and electrical engineering and director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Bucknell, and Sarah Zappe, director of assessment and instructional support at Penn State’s Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education. After a day of workshops and meetings, the three were hanging out at their hotel when Tom put his question to the group: What happens to student entrepreneurs who fail? “And there was silence,” recalls Tranquillo. “Because we just didn’t know.”
The conversations between the three continued, and now, with support from VentureWell, have spawned a joint research project aimed at understanding the psychological dynamics of failure and how innovation and entrepreneurship faculty can better prepare their students to learn from it. By bringing together an entrepreneurship educator, an engineering professor, and an educational psychologist, the effort also serves as a model of how researchers and practitioners can work together to explore multi-disciplinary issues of broad importance to the innovation and entrepreneurship education community.
finding best practices through research
The work of Team Fail, as Zappe came to call it, is still in its preliminary stages, but eventually the trio hopes to disseminate their findings to the innovation and entrepreneurship community, perhaps through articles, workshops, or conference presentations. The goal is to promote a more research-backed understanding of what teaching approaches are most beneficial—both for future entrepreneurs and for the far greater number of students who end up taking their skills to other fields (for more on their goals, see here). Applying this kind of research lens to the practices of entrepreneurship education is “just beginning,” Zappe notes, but “bringing in these interdisciplinary ideas and concepts can really help to move the field forward.”
Victoria Matthew of VentureWell, which provided a collaboration grant to Team Fail, agrees. “Innovation and entrepreneurship is now taught on most campuses, and while we have beliefs about what we think works, the truth is there is little research demonstrating best practices,” she says. “In order for this field to progress, and in order for innovation and entrepreneurship to have a foothold in academic institutions for the long term, researchers and practitioners must join forces to better understand what works and why.”
And that’s where collaboration across disciplines offers a strategic advantage—by tapping the experience of each team member. “As a practitioner, as a faculty member of entrepreneurship, you may not know what survey instruments to use, for example, or how to run a focus group,” Matthew notes. “But if you collaborate, you don’t need to know that. That’s one of the strengths.”
build teams with complementary skill sets
The diversity of Team Fail illustrates how this can play out. “We’re quite different in our orientation and our history and background, which in my opinion is extremely helpful,” notes Katona. Before joining California Polytechnic State University in 2014, Katona worked with technology startups, and he brings a strong industry background to the team. Tranquillo, an award-winning teacher, textbook author, and National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering Education Fellow (among other memberships), brings expertise in engineering education. And Zappe, who has been working at the intersection of educational psychology and engineering education for two decades, brings her expertise in educational research and assessment techniques. “You take one of us out of the picture,” notes Katona, “and the job gets a lot harder.”
In a fitting analogy, Katona compares the process of forming a successful collaboration to that of building a successful startup team. “You have to get people that are both interested in what the project is, and have the right complementary skill sets so that they can actually pull it off.”
As it happens, the members of Team Fail all shared a passion for better understanding the practice of entrepreneurial education.
“We all have an interest in exploring, What does it look like to create environments for students where they can learn about entrepreneurial thinking, entrepreneurial mindset, and being an entrepreneur?” explains Tranquillo. But there was also chemistry between the three that helped the passion become a project. “This happened exactly the way a collaboration is supposed to happen,” he says, “which is we all met as friends at a conference. I don’t want to say we were explicitly searching for a project to work on, but in the back of many of our minds was, There’s great energy here. If we could find something that we all are passionate about, it could make for a great collaboration.”
get the message out
Once the group has findings to share, they recognize that another collaboration challenge will await them: reaching practitioners with their message. Their work raises questions about long-held beliefs in the entrepreneurship field and accepted educational practices, both of which may prove resistant to change. Consider the idea of failure itself. “There’s a mythology of failure in the entrepreneurship world,” notes Tranquillo. “We say that we respect failure, we love it, and that you can learn from it. But when it happens, we often say, Okay, we’re going to ignore you for now, and we’re going to focus on the folks that succeeded.”
Practitioners also may lack familiarity with the social science research that can inform educational practice. “Most are coming from either business settings or more technical backgrounds, so they don’t necessarily have the background in things like creativity, resiliency, or curiosity,” explains Zappe, who has evaluated the efficacy of educational programs and studied such traits. “Those constructs have such a rich background in psychology, which isn’t always brought into the classroom, or into the conversations that we have at conferences.” [Editor’s note: Read Zappe’s article Promoting a Growth Mindset When Teaching Entrepreneurship on our blog.]
The social science around failure is particularly robust, Zappe notes, and could be used to teach strategies that help students deal with it—both before it occurs and after. “If we better understand what’s been done in other contexts,” she says, “then faculty who teach entrepreneurship could ask, What are some of the adaptive mechanisms for dealing with failure and how can we support students to do adaptive things rather than maladaptive things?”
One factor that makes learning from failure challenging, adds Tranquillo, is that our educational grading system is built around demonstrating success. “Is there a way for your students to fail in their main task but still succeed in other dimensions, including their grade?” he wonders. “In some senior design classes, the grade is based more on the risks you took, the ideas you had, the things you tried, and the thought that you put into following a process. Whether it all worked out in the end is another story.”
It’s questions like these that Katona and Team Fail will be exploring as they further develop their project, refine its scope, and strategize about sharing their results. But by collaborating across disciplines, bringing rich expertise from a diversity of backgrounds, and understanding the possible barriers to adoption, they have given themselves the best chance of finding the answers.
Katona, Tranquillo, and Zappe have since published their work in a paper titled, “A Systemic Review of Student Entrepreneurial Failure in Engineering Education”. Download the report for more information.
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