By: Lexie Newhouse
John Ray of Business Radio X sat down with Dr. Jennifer Sherer, Director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, to discuss Georgia State University’s unique program to address the needs of Georgia State’s diverse student body population and the institute’s overall influence on Atlanta’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Share a little about yourself.
I’ve been with Georgia State for only about two and a half months, so I’m pretty new there and have loved every moment. In my career, I’ve always been in positions supporting entrepreneurs. I’m trained as a research scientist, and after graduate school, I found myself working at universities out-licensing intellectual property and ultimately helping researchers start companies around their intellectual property. That was the part that really got me excited. From there, I’ve just continued along the path to find ways to support innovators and entrepreneurs. That’s largely what I’m doing at Georgia State through my work at the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute.
Share a little about the institute.
The Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute at Georgia State is a pretty unique place. It is setup to expose all students at Georgia State – And I say all. There are 53,000 students at Georgia State. – to entrepreneurship. It’s important that every student has access to the opportunity to learn about what entrepreneurship means. Learn how to start a business. Or even learn how to be entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial within a large corporation. It’s a ton of fun because when you put that type of training together with creative, young and old minds – We have students of all ages. – then you really begin see some interesting solutions and projects that result.
Describe the influence of diversity on Georgia State and ENI.
The institute is set up as part of the Robinson College of Business, but it has a university-wide mandate. What that means is that it is an effort to provide students of all backgrounds and of all majors access to entrepreneurship. You can do the formalized degree training that I think we are all familiar with at universities, but there are also other opportunities to be exposed to. Hearing from entrepreneurs within the Atlanta community and beyond, participating in workshops, things of that nature.
From there, you can decide whether you want to pursue a minor or major in Entrepreneurship. Or possibly you want to go down a path of Media Entrepreneur or Social Entrepreneurship, two industry-specific programs that we also offer at Georgia for example. There are a number of things happening across campus with the idea that if you create spaces for entrepreneurship and like-minded people who have an interest in starting a company or being a part of a growing company – If you create the places and the communities for those people to converge together, then good things happen.
What connection does the Media Entrepreneurship major have to Georgia’s film industry activity?
A popular word for universities these days, and for good reason, is “interdisciplinary.” The idea is that you might need some business training to start a company, but you also need some sort of training in a certain industry or a certain area of expertise to bolster that kind of entrepreneurial mindset. We work with the Creative Media Industry Institute at Georgia State University in the College of Arts and Sciences to offer degrees and experiences in Media Entrepreneurship.
And you’re absolutely right. The Creative Media Industries Institute is set up to train the talent and fuel the pipeline for the film and media industry happening in Georgia right now. It’s a matter of giving them the skillsets to figure out how to create value, how to understand your customer and why that is so important in business. The other thing we’re thinking a lot about and trying to create are communities where people of different skillsets and areas of expertise come together. Most companies require more than one person, right? They require teams. Particularly if you are producing a company that can scale over time, you will need someone that is creative on your team.
That spirit of entrepreneurship and those skills can reside in any body regardless of what your major is. The idea is how do we expose and give everybody the opportunity to bring people together that bring different value to the table and ultimately create something valuable.
You have a lot of involvement with outside businesses and entrepreneurs. How does that happen?
We’re fortunate to be in a large metropolitan area like Atlanta. We’re also fortunate that there are a lot of things happening for entrepreneurs and innovators in Atlanta. There are a number of different organizations. There are spaces like incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces that are all working to support entrepreneurs. Fortunately, as at institute at Georgia State, we have access to some of those organizations and some of those spaces because entrepreneurship doesn’t just happen at Georgia State.
Eventually, these students will graduate. Georgia State is extremely proud in how we’ve increased graduation rates, so we certainly want students to graduate, but we also don’t want them to drop their entrepreneurial endeavors when they leave the university. We want them to have places to go on and organizations to go on where they can continue to build their network and find the resources they need for their companies. We’re in a great ecosystem.
We partner with the Entrepreneurs’ Organization for example, on the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards. Students from anywhere in the United States can apply to participate and compete for this award and ultimately receive some quality mentorship, support and guidance as well as some potentially national exposure if they advance through the phases effectively.
We have partnerships TiE Atlanta to connect with entrepreneurs who are willing to come teach our courses as part-time instructors, mentor our students, and visit as guest speakers. We have a number of different mechanisms to engage students, and nearly every time we call on an entrepreneur to come speak to students, we get a positive response.
What other ways can businesses become involved in ENI?
The institute was established in 2016 where a lot of foundational work was completed before I joined ENI from establishing the curriculum to getting things up and running. One of the areas that we are focusing on moving forward is external engagement. We are certainly looking to work with industry partners in a number of ways.
One of the ways is a mentoring program we are piloting at the moment. We all know entrepreneurs in particular can really benefit in having the right mentor, or mentors, that can engage with them as they are growing their business. We are establishing a formal mentorship program as a place regardless of whether you are an entrepreneur, worked in an established company, scaled a venture, or just have big company expertise that might help an entrepreneur learn how to sell into an established organization or learn how to scale their business, you receive the mentorship you need.
That is one way that we are looking for companies, entrepreneurs, of course Georgia State alum and others who can help support student-entrepreneurs on their journey through mentorship. Entrepreneurship isn’t easy. We want our students to see themselves in those entrepreneur’s shoes. Not everybody grows up thinking they can be an entrepreneur, so we want to make sure that they see themselves in entrepreneurial shoes.
Entrepreneurship is one of those disciplines that a lot of universities are rolling out some sort of effort around entrepreneurship. What makes Georgia State unique in that regard?
As I mentioned, there are about 53,000 students. Just considering that – That’s huge. It’s one of the largest universities in the country. It’s a majority minority population of students. We’re unique in that sense alone. We can’t just necessarily look at another university, see how they are implementing entrepreneurship at their school, take that model and plop it down at Georgia State. We’re really trying to understand our student population and meet the needs of our students. We’re trying to get them to the point where they can see themselves as an entrepreneur, learn the skillsets, and gain the tools in order to be an entrepreneur.
It’s easy to talk about entrepreneurship and just assume that everybody is going to start their own company, and the reality is if you look at what you learn through an entrepreneurship curriculum at Georgia State, it actually prepares you to do a lot of different things. Every major corporation that I’ve spoken with over the past five years is trying to find students that know how to identify problems, think critically, ideate and understand process around providing solutions for those problems. Whether you go start your own company, become part of a growing company, become part of a major corporation or in this gig economy, go your own way and do your own thing, you have the mindset and skills that enable you to be successful in whatever your next stage is.
Prior to joining ENI, you were at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. You were involved in entrepreneurship and innovation there at the chamber, so what insight can you offer in relation to how Atlanta ranks in this very important area for growth?
I was excited about taking the position because there are a lot of really neat things at Georgia State, but also that the role was similar in the sense that it’s about driving a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. That’s in large part what I was doing at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. It is really about how do you make sure that innovators and entrepreneurs, and I always use both of those terms because they are not the same thing – there’s a lot of overlap but they are not the same thing – but how do you make sure that those people have the resources that they need to be successful. And ultimately, how do you incentivize certain behaviors that lead to innovation, that lead to starting new companies, that lead to solving problems and creating value in society.
The great thing about Atlanta is that there is a lot happening in that ecosystem. Incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces that are opening up almost once a week! That pace is slowing down a little bit, but still, a lot is happening. You have corporate innovation centers popping up all over the place, many of them around the Georgia Tech campus and Tech Square, but some other places as well. You have nonprofit organizations that are supporting and ramping up their efforts to provide the support as well.
The other thing I’ll add is that not every business requires venture capital, for example, but there is still plenty of money entering Georgia companies. People say that we always need more capital, but the reality is that people are paying more attention to what is happening in Atlanta. There have been a number of efforts in various organizations throughout the region, like Venture Atlanta and ATDC for example, have done great work in attracting investors outside of the Atlanta region to show them what’s going on here. I have always said that money follows good companies, so if you’re building good companies, then there is capital available. We have also seen local funds popping up and putting that high-risk capital into early stage companies. Having a strong higher education system and strong research universities is another element in addition to the government support. All of these elements make for a strong ecosystem. And when all these elements come together, it creates a pretty exciting environment to be an innovator or entrepreneur.
For those that want to be in touch and learn more information, how do they do that?