Entrepreneurs: Born or Made? | Interview with Dr. Daniel Cohen

Entrepreneurs: Born or Made? | Interview with Dr. Daniel Cohen

We met with Dr. Daniel Cohen about the growing interest in entrepreneurship at colleges and universities, and the entrepreneurial mindset that is crucial to success in today’s professional market. Enjoy!

Professor Daniel Cohen from Wake Forest university discusses the growing school of entrepreneurship that he oversees. Entrepreneurship is currently one of the fastest-growing areas of specialization at colleges and universities. The growth initially resulted in some resistance, but most colleges are now realizing the value of entrepreneurship. In Cohen’s program, students learn how to identifya potential idea, and then test and develop it into a lucrative venture. Beyond just starting a business, learning to think like an entrepreneur is a crucial skill in the professional market. Professor Cohen identifies the three key components of the entrepreneurial mindset: ideation, learned optimism, and passion. This mindset helps students learn to cope with failure and bounce back from a setback. Cohen has also partnered with the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest to teach students other skills such as etiquette and interview conduct. Follow along as Full Professor of Practice in business and entrepreneurship and co-founder of the Startup Lab at Wake Forest, Dr. Daniel Cohen talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

I don't know of another university that has done as much research, on really and truly what it means to develop an entrepreneur mindset as what we're doing at Wake Forest Center for Entrepreneurship.” – Dr. Daniel Cohen

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Find out more about the Wake Forest Entrepreneurship Program at @EShipWake

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Interview with Dr. Daniel Cohen


Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:18.6Center for Entrepreneurship

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence. And today we have Dan Cohen, a good friend of mine, from Wake Forest, who is doing all things entrepreneurial within academia. So, a lot of people might wonder how that looks and whether entrepreneurs are born or whether they are made in college. And so I just want you to talk about your role and how you got there. So, go for it.

Daniel Cohen: Thanks, Jed, it’s a pleasure to be with you, today on this podcast and talking about something that is near and dear to my heart, something that I’m very passionate about, and that is developing nascent entrepreneurs. That’s pretty much all I’ve done for the past 17 years. Just a quick background, I’m an entrepreneur by background, started a company when I was 24 years old, I built it up into a pretty good sized firm in our space, in our industry. Sold it, had a good exit and went back for a PhD and I studied entrepreneurship and I do academic research on entrepreneurship and teach entrepreneurship.

Prior to coming to Wake Forest, I was at the University of Iowa for two years, and I was involved with their student accelerator program, and then I went to Cornell University, and I was at Cornell for eight years. And while I was at Cornell, I founded something called eLab, which is Cornell’s startup accelerator, and it became one of the country’s best startup accelerator programs, and something I’m very proud of and still remain on the board of eLab. We’ve launched over 30 startups that have raised more than a couple hundred million dollars from venture capital, and became really a tremendous program.

And then in 2015, I came down to Wake Forest to oversee the entire entrepreneurship program at Wake Forest. And we’ve just had so much fun, like, we’ve put in a curriculum that we think helps students do entrepreneurship, we think this is very much an apply of the subject, this is something you learn by doing it, as much as you might learn by reading it, you have to actually experience it and do it. And so we’ve created a curriculum that helps students do entrepreneurship, the core of our curriculum is developing students idea of spotting capability, like, what makes an idea valuable, in fact, I invented method called the Ideate Method, which was published as an experiment in Small Business Economics, which is a good academic journal. And then from there, we developed it into a workbook that was published by SAGE, it’s now been adopted by more than 100 universities in the United States and Canada, and also in other countries beyond, like in Chile and Brazil, and a little bit in China, so it started to catch on and help students spot, evaluate and select ideas that are of higher potential. And then the second course is how to take that idea and develop it and test it with target market customers, and build a prototype and see if it can morph into a concept.

And then the third course is, "Okay, once you’ve gotten some traction at an early stage, how do you develop it into a permanent venture?" So that’s on the academic side, and then we created two early stage, one is an early stage accelerator to help refine ideas and turn them into concepts, that’s called Deacon Springboard, and then more advanced students that have gotten conceptual traction, we have a startup lab that helps them scale their concept into a venture. We just had a student exit, last week, he started something in February in the NFT field, he created a marketplace for NFT, and in February of 2021, it was just acquired for 1.5 million, six months later. We have another one in the market right now called Nori, which is iron spelled backwards, it’s a disruption to the antiquated ironing industry, and they’ve gotten great guns, they’re on a $2 million run rate for revenue this year. So, our system, if you will, of developing nascent entrepreneurs is bearing fruit here, as it did at Cornell, and we’re thrilled by the progress that our students are making, we’re their biggest cheerleaders, their biggest fans and their biggest supporters. And so, that’s kind of a quick update on what we’ve been doing at the Center for Entrepreneurship, of course, any of your followers can also follow us, @eshipwake if they’re interested, on any social media.

Jed: That is great, and I’m gonna actually put links to those things with this interview, so it’ll be really easy for people to click on.

Daniel: Thank you.

0:04:57.8The program at Wake Forest University

Jed: And also to get your workbook, ’cause that sounds super useful.

So, if I understand you correctly, you’ve been here at Wake for about six years, and you’ve started two different incubators for students, like a beginning level one and a more advanced level one?

Daniel: Yeah, yeah.

Jed: That is fabulous.

Daniel: Oh, thank you.

Jed: How many students are involved? I remember before you got here, it was already the biggest minor at Wake, wasn’t it?

Daniel: Yeah.

Jed: And Betsy Gatewood had sort of started the program here in 2004 maybe, or something like that?

Daniel: Yeah, Betsy’s great. She’s been a tremendous mentor to me and a friend, and she’s a great scholar, and I just can’t say enough good things about Betsy Gatewood, she did a wonderful job of getting the program stood up and going great guns. When I took over the program, it was the largest minor with about 180 students, and Jed, I don’t know if you’re aware, but we’re now over 330.

Jed: No way. No, I’m not aware. I really, I know that there are good things happening, but this is such an encouraging time for me to hear the details, so, 330 students. That is incredible.

Daniel: Yeah.

Jed: Do they get plugged in? Like, do you have these 330 students, sort of, as they go through from freshman to senior year, or do they kind of balloon out, and in their junior and senior you get more of them, or, I mean, how many students go through the program like that, like more in the sophomore and junior years, jump on?

Daniel: Yeah, so, it’s kind of a challenge in a way, because we have so many students. And the university has really gotten behind us. We had until last June, I was the only full-time faculty member associated with the program, and then we got another permanent line for Greg Pool, who was a visitor who’s been just an integral part of the growth of our program. He’s a wonderful colleague and great entrepreneur, transition to academia, similar to me, and so Greg joined me full-time July 1 and now we’re hiring two more this year. So in the span of about 13 months, we’re gonna go from one full-time faculty member to four, and that will really help us handle the demand for entrepreneurship.

…I think entrepreneurs are particularly impressive at that young age of 25, 26 years old, because they faced so much adversity and they've overcome so many little failures along the way, and they learn how to sell themselves. They learn how to cope with adversity and failure, they learn how to bounce back.” – Dr. Daniel Cohen

And so we have a speaker series class, which I’d love to invite you to come out to in the spring. It’s basically a lot of our successful young alums that are maybe 26, 28 years old. They’ve started a company in college and they’ve scaled it and they’ve raised capital, and maybe they’re looking at an exit. Then they come back to share their story, and you know they’re old enough to have accomplished some really amazing things. They’re super impressive people, and I think, maybe my bias showing through here, but I think entrepreneurs are particularly impressive at that young age of 25, 26 years old, because they faced so much adversity and they’ve overcome so many little failures along the way, and they learn how to sell themselves. They learn how to cope with adversity and failure, they learn how to bounce back. And they really have a great story to tell, and we ask them to tell the unvarnished truth. We don’t want them to just gloss over the hard parts. We want them to give a real account of what this life is like, because we feel very strongly that we’re not trying to sell entrepreneurship on our students. We’re just trying to expose them to entrepreneurship, and we think a really good outcome is for a student to look at it and say, "You know what, that’s not for me, that ties my stomach in to knots. I don’t like that feeling." We think that that’s a really good outcome because, again, we’re not trying to sell them on this domain, we’re trying to expose them to it, and then for those where there’s a strong passion and fit, then we really wanna help support that.

And if people are not feeling like it’s such a great fit, they can still develop an entrepreneurial mindset. It doesn’t mean they have to go be a founder. They could be an entrepreneur within a larger organization, and so we now are growing with our faculty and that helps us. And to answer your question, the speaker shares, we get them in sophomores in that class, and we had 220 students in that class last spring, virtually, so it’s become... I think it might be the biggest class. If not, it is one of the biggest classes at Wake, and so that’s the gateway class. They take that class and they get excited and they get turned on, and then they go into the core courses.

Jed: Gosh that is great. Well, 220 students coming through that class, and that was with everybody masked up and social distance, I mean, where did you do it that you were able to...

Daniel: Yeah, well, so we did it, before COVID, we did it in Annenberg, ’cause that was the only space that was big enough, and then the last rendition was done virtually.

Jed: Okay. Good.

Daniel: Yeah, we had to do it virtually, and so that’s usually taken at like a freshman or sophomore level, then they have to declare a major, which happens in their sophomore year before they can take the core courses, so usually the core courses happen in junior and senior year, so we try to get rolling in order to get them through the program.

0:10:13.4Compare and contrast

Jed: So, when you count 330 students, you’re counting people who’ve gone through the gateway class and declared a minor, so they’re usually at the end of their sophomore and then beyond. That’s amazing. So you’ve got 110 people per class. It’s like 10% of Wake Forest is majoring and minoring in what you’re doing. That’s incredible. [laughter] It’s really, really incredible.

So put it in perspective for people like, how is Wake Forest doing with entrepreneurship compared to other schools around the country, good schools, not as good schools, bigger schools, equal sized schools, give us some perspective here.

Daniel: Sure, sure. Well, we believe that we compete well against bigger universities, which is hard to do ’cause they have more students, and so some of the best schools in the country that are known for entrepreneurship are, of course, Stanford is probably the best known. MIT is also exceptional in Boston. Cornell is very strong. Michigan is strong. University of Chicago is really strong. Washington U, Wash-U in St. Louis is very strong. So those are some of the really preeminent universities. I also think a school that is a little under the radar, and that’s very good is Miami and Ohio. They have an excellent entrepreneurship program, and of course Babson. Yeah, Babson has kind of really hung their hat on entrepreneurship.

Jed: And why do you say, "Of course," as if people would know this?

Daniel: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good... I’m sorry. That’s a good question. Babson has really made a concerted effort to make their identity connected to entrepreneurship for more than 50 years. Every student, at Babson has to take an entrepreneurship course. Like Wake Forest, it’s a liberal arts school, but every student there has to take entrepreneurship, so they’ve really invested heavily. And I mean they have 20 full-time faculty teaching entrepreneurship, and oftentimes they’re top ranked or top five ranked program. I don’t know of another university aside from maybe Stanford that is so well connected with the word entrepreneurship as Babson.

Jed: Yeah.

Daniel: So those are some of the top schools, and I think that we are an up and comer, we’re new, but I think that we are starting to get some traction. We’ve been up for four pretty significant awards and we’ve been finalists for four pretty significant awards in the past two years, around the IDA method, which was an international finalist for two teaching and pedagogical excellence awards of international conferences, and then there’s a category for model emerging programs at USASB which is the largest entrepreneurship conference, I think in the world, and we were national finalists for model emerging program. So I think that we’re up and coming, but I think we’re on a lot of schools radars out there, and I think that we’ve got a program that is distinctive and a very high quality, but we’re very proud of what we’ve done, but we’re also very humble and hungry, we feel like we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us to be in a position to reach our potential.

Jed: So we’re kind of the entrepreneurs within the entrepreneurship program.

Daniel: Yes. [laughter] Very scrappy and very entrepreneurial.

Jed: That’s great. Well, 15 years ago, I remember that the catch word was cross-campus entrepreneurship.

Daniel: Yes.

Jed: And that was something that your mentor, Betsy Gate would really championed.

Is that something that still defines the Wake Forest program relative to the Babsons and the Stanfords and the MITs, or is pretty much everybody doing that now and was it a new thing? So give us some perspective on that.

Daniel: Yeah, so that’s a great question, Jed. So the origins of Wake Forest entrepreneurship program stemmed from a grant from Kauffman Foundation, and what they wanted to do is they wanted to promote entrepreneurship across campus, and so there were, I think, 10 schools and two batches of five that won these awards and these were really, really preeminent schools, and Wake was one of them, and so the grant wanted this to germinate across the whole campus. I love that fact. I mean, if you look at our student entrepreneurs, they come from every nook and cranny of the campus, a lot of people when they meet me, they’ll say, "Well, I suppose you’re in the business school," and I said, "Well, we’re partners with the business school." I mean a lot of their students minor in entrepreneurship, but a lot of art students minor in entrepreneurship, a lot of physics students minor in entrepreneurship, a lot of psychology students minor in entrepreneurship, a lot of economic students, minor in entrepreneurship.

And so they really do Jed, come from every nook and cranny of the campus, and one plug I will make for our program is, there’s a lot of talk about cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset, and I would say that we’ve really taken a lot of action on what that means. What I mean by taking action is, there are certain skills that have been identified as essential parts of an entrepreneurial mindset, and we’ve done research and are in the process of getting work published, either have gotten it published or in the late stages of getting it published in top tier journals on ideation, as I mentioned, the Ideate Method. This past spring, I did an experiment on learned optimism and got really strong results and found that learned optimism helps students cope with failure and bounce back from failure and made them more resilient.

So those three skills, ideation, optimism and passion are three key components of the entrepreneurial mindset.” – Dr. Daniel Cohen

And that is under review right now at a top tier journal, and then I’ve done research also on passion. So those three skills, ideation, optimism and passion are three key components of the entrepreneurial mindset. I don’t know of another university that has done as much research, on really and truly what it means to develop an entrepreneurial mindset is what we’re doing at Wake Forest Center for Entrepreneurship, so we’re really trying to take a leadership role in helping us really and truly understand that and you made a point at the top of the podcast that I wanna come back to, ’cause it’s really a great one.

0:16:48.8The making of entrepreneurs

Jed: I was just gonna come back to it, ’cause obviously it’s a resounding yes that you can make entrepreneurs obviously from what you’re saying.

Daniel: Yeah.

Jed: But go ahead, share what you’re gonna say.

Daniel: Yeah. So what I was gonna say is, I think the person has done the best research on this is a professor at Case Western, named Scott Shane , and he’s done a lot of research with thousands of twins, and basically what he’s found is that entrepreneurs are mostly made. There is some innate talent that’s about 1/3 innate 2/3 nurture, and so that tells me that if you really want to be an entrepreneur, you can become an entrepreneur, the innate talent might separate great entrepreneurs from good entrepreneurs, but if you wanna be an entrepreneur, there’s enough research out there that indicates that that’s absolutely something that can happen and we’ve seen it, we’ve seen it through the development of our student entrepreneurs. And this notion of cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset, I think is so practical, because most of our students are not gonna become founders upon leaving Wake.

Maybe down the road they’ll become founders. I saw a recent research that said 75% of high school students say they want to be entrepreneurs at some point in their life, that number is overwhelming, this is what young people want, they want to have autonomy, they wanna have control over their... They wanna be masters of their own domain. They wanna change the world. And so we wanna help them achieve their goals. But even for students that don’t become founders, research shows that they’re gonna change careers more than 10 times, so they have to look at their career in an entrepreneurial way, they have to almost look at themselves like a free agent and look for the best opportunity to employ their talents. And so I just think that having an entrepreneurial mindset is gonna have more and more meaning and applicability as we move forward.

0:18:50.9OPCD program

Jed: Oh, it’s so true. Now, one of the things I love about Wake is the Entrepreneurship Program, and it started when I started, so I’ve gotten to watch it grow. I’ve been involved at various points. I just love it. Another thing I love about Wake is the program that Andy Chan has put in place.

Daniel: Sure.

Jed: It started just shortly after I got here…

…how do you see those two programs and can you share a little bit more about this Andy Chan program that I’m calling? Tell everybody what it is, since you probably know it better than I do.

Daniel: Sure.

Jed: And how that fits into what you were just talking about, of people’s careers being kind of their entrepreneurial projects. So, talk about that a little bit.

Daniel: Sure thing. Well, yeah, the program that Andy Chan founded is really top shelf, I mean, a lot of schools look to Wake to emulate what he has done with OPCD, it’s like the Office of Career Preparation and Readiness. And so OPCD really helps our students figure out what are they passionate about, what kind of mark do they wanna make, how do they get themselves ready for the right kind of career? And so they teach classes, they do one-on-ones, they really take action to helping our students flesh out the path to a really fulfilling career. They help with placement, they help with internships, it’s really a robust, excellent program. And we work very closely with OPCD.

In fact, I just had a meeting with two colleagues from there, and talking with Heidi Robinson, and other colleagues over there, and talking about doing a business etiquette dinner, where we would teach our entrepreneurship students how to interview, how to go on an evening dinner meeting and learning all about dining etiquette and things like that, just little tweaks that people may or may not know, but certainly are valuable when you’re in that situation. Maybe you’re talking to some investors and they wanna take you out to dinner, and you wanna show that you’re comfortable in that environment, that setting. And so they approached me, Molly and Heidi approached me and said, "Would you like to do an etiquette dinner for your 105 class and teach 220 students all about dining etiquette in a business setting?" I said, "Sure, how can I say no to that?"

Jed: Yeah.

Daniel: And so, they’re wonderful colleagues, and I think it, actually, I think it’s a mark of distinction for Wake Forest, I think it’s something that really distinguishes our university, and it’s an absolute strength at Wake, for sure.

Jed: Absolutely, that’s why I love those two programs and they work so well together because you have this OPCD, the Office of Professional and Career Development, that helps everyone, should help everyone. If anybody wants help, they can get help, whether they’re going to... They’re going to be an entrepreneur and they like that risk and that taking, "Entrée preneur," you know, entering and taking. And other people are just like, "No, I just wanna work at a company, I wanna be a piece of a larger thing."

Daniel: Yeah. Absolutely.

0:22:08.0Pushback?

Jed: "And I don’t want to have to take the risks. That’s not my thing." So they’re helping both of those groups of people, and what a blessing for the entrepreneurs that you are in charge of to have that service to help them learn dining etiquette, to help them learn interview etiquette, to help them know where their passions are. I’m just thrilled that we have both of those things on our campus, it’s really like a perfect storm of good things to happen, and they both kinda happened since I’ve been here, and it’s just been really fun to watch.

Now, that all sounds like roses. Is there pushback? And is there pushback at every university that has an entrepreneurship program? And what is that kind of pushback?

Daniel: That’s a good question, and it’s a fair question. And I think what’s happened is, I was recently at a conference at Notre Dame and a colleague that studies this, so I don’t know this first hand, I’m hearing this second hand, that entrepreneurship is the fastest growing academic discipline in history. It has taken off like a laser, and so, I think in the late ’80s, very few universities even had a course on entrepreneurship, and now if you look around the country, what you’re seeing, Jed, every university has courses on entrepreneurship, and it used to be that minors in entrepreneurship, like our program, were the status quo, and most schools started to have a minor in entrepreneurship.

Now, you’re seeing a lot of majors in entrepreneurship, and now in the last 2-3 years, you’re seeing schools of entrepreneurship. Florida State has a school of entrepreneurship, Drexel has a school of entrepreneurship. I own a college, I think Western Washington, they all have schools of entrepreneurship. So it has taken off like a rocket ship. And I think any time that happens in a very traditional environment, like the academic environment, there are gonna be naysayers and there are gonna be people that are gonna have their doubts about it.

But I think what’s happened is, there’s been enough demand from students, there’s been enough academic rigor now, where we have several journals that have comparable impact scores as the more traditional business disciplines of Management and HR and Accounting and entrepreneurship journals are starting to have similar impact scores. It’s starting to be looked at as its own discipline. It used to often be almost like an underling to management or an underling to strategy, and now a lot of departments are just stand-alone entrepreneurship departments.

And so what I think has happened is the naysayers have dwindled, the pushback has backed off, and I think in large part, you can’t deny the demand that this is what students want, and some people say, "Well, it’s pretty skill-based, and I don’t know how much academic legitimacy it has, it’s not so theoretical. That’s a skill, and maybe not the right thing for a university to invest in." But I think what’s happened is, the overall success of entrepreneurship has established itself and taken hold, and so we’re seeing less and less pushback every day, and more and more people that just think, like you think, that it’s a really good thing.

0:25:37.8Sign off

Jed: Yeah, it is great, and I don’t want this whole interview to be like an advertisement for our programs, but I’m honestly just so excited and I knew it would be fun to hear from you how things are going. So thank you so much for taking some time today and just having a fun time talking about what you’re doing and entrepreneurship as it’s now coming on the scene, so thank you.

Daniel: Jed, absolutely my pleasure. It was a great time talking to you about what we do here at Wake Forest. Thank you for having me.

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