23 Feb 2024

Rock Center Faculty Co-Chairs Q+A


by Shona Simkin

The Rock Center for Entrepreneurship has announced a new faculty co-chair: Julia Austin, senior lecturer, joins Professor Shikhar Ghosh, who has been a co-chair since 2018. Professor Tom Eisenmann remains unit head for Entrepreneurial Management and the Peter O. Crisp Faculty Chair of the Harvard Innovation Labs (ilab). We asked Austin and Ghosh about their partnership, their shared vision for the Rock Center, and the entrepreneurship ecosystem at Harvard Business School (HBS).

What is the role of faculty co-chairs at the Rock Center?
Shikhar Ghosh: It’s a little different from other initiatives because we’re tied with the Entrepreneurial Management unit. I think of it as kind of an executive chair position in a company. You’re helping with direction, some content, and building a bridge to faculty, practitioners, and the community. The director and staff do that as well, we just have different networks and access to people. It’s quite collaborative in that each person around the table has their own experience, network, and thoughts and we come together to make it work. We also spend time on new programs—new technologies that are coming along, how to bring them in so that the program complements what’s happening in the classroom. We’re very much focused on the student entrepreneurs being successful and on engaging alumni entrepreneurs at various stages of their journeys.

Julia Austin: It’s a very exciting opportunity for the Rock Center, as we have more and more students coming to HBS wanting to start their own companies or try entrepreneurship—we’re seen as a place where they can not only learn about entrepreneurship but do entrepreneurship. Our role is making sure we support that goal—that they have a chance to develop all the necessary skills to pursue entrepreneurship, join a startup, or be investors or venture capitalists—whether it’s in the classroom or from the Rock Center directly. Our network of alumni and practitioners provides a unique asset as we look at how the segments of our audience connect with and support one another.

Julia, what excites you about this new role?
JA: We have really grown exponentially in terms of the number of students who are interested in entrepreneurship in some way—joiner, founder, investor—and I’m excited about how we’re pulling that together holistically as a curriculum and how that is augmented by things we’re doing in the Rock Center. It’s still early stages, but I’m excited for the three pillars we are focused on: programming outside the curriculum that supports the entrepreneurial journey; the curriculum itself, making sure we’re offering the right content inside the classroom and making it available later; and working with alumni who are now in it for real. It’s amazing to see the content we’re developing and the programming that we’re thinking about to engage our alumni, and how our entrepreneurs in residence (EiRs) and executive fellows plug into that community, all while considering bigger things we’re doing with the ilab and other places—how we’re all working with each other in a very supportive, transparent way for our students. It’s a very exciting time to be part of the Rock Center because so much is happening. Despite all that’s going on in the world and in the economy and in crazy investment land, our students are still getting money from investors, they’re still launching their ventures or getting jobs at startups. Lots of positive things are happening and I’m excited to be part of all of it.

How do you see this new co-chair partnership?
SG: Tom [Eisenman], Julia, and I have worked together for a long time. Julia has been involved in several Rock Center programs, so I don’t see it as being a big shift, I see it as a continuation. We’re going to be working closely with Tom in his roles with the EM Unit and the ilab, and Julia has been part of the team for quite a while. We’re going to have a new administrative director, so there will be some change there with different people around the table.

JA: It was a natural, obvious course—I already work with the staff over at the Rock Center, I’ve partnered well with everyone here, so it doesn’t feel different beyond it being a bigger role with more impact.

What does the MBA student entrepreneurship journey look like at HBS?
JA: It starts as early as the Required Curriculum (RC) year, connecting to the entrepreneurship community through Eship Day and then getting plugged into Startup Bootcamp or the Startup Toolkit Short Intensive Program (SIP) to get exposed to the early stages of startup life. We have everyone from aspiring entrepreneurs to folks who think they want to join a startup or are career pivoters—folks who think they may be in a startup someday or in an early stage of a smaller company and are curious about what it looks like. We help to coordinate and organize opportunities in their RC year that don’t interrupt their other activities. All RC students take The Entrepreneurial Manager course their second semester which offers foundational insights through cases on everything from idea generation and building a team to raising capital. In the summer we run the Rock Center Summer Fellow Program, which is a grant-funded opportunity for students to delve into their own idea with further education through guest speakers and coaching circles with experienced entrepreneurs and other programming support from the Rock Center. Students also use the fellowship to work at startups or venture firms—we partner with Career and Professional Development (CPD) to make sure that they find a placement to get them the exposure they’re interested in. In the Elective Curriculum (EC) year we have many courses that allow students to delve deeper into entrepreneurial topics such as my course, Startup Operations, Entrepreneurial Finance, Sales and others and a host of other programs like Demo Day and the New Venture Competition, which are opportunities to pitch investors and get feedback and potentially win money or get funded.

SG: In some ways, the Rock Center gives many of our students their first contact with what it means to be an entrepreneur. Some of them are not ready, sometimes for practical reasons like not getting a visa or having student debt, but once they’ve had that contact, it stays with them. I constantly have former students calling and saying they’re working for a company but are always looking for an opportunity and they eventually take the plunge when the time is right. We are planting a seed in the early stages of showing them what this journey actually looks like. For some of them it isn’t the right time, but the experience allows them to make that judgement.

Have you seen that journey change or evolve?
SG: Over the last few years we’ve had entrepreneurs starting their own companies, but we also have a lot of students who become joiners. There’s an overlap between entrepreneurship and technology. Companies that were once entrepreneurial have become huge companies; some of the biggest companies. Many of their methods and ways of thinking are very similar to small companies because they were small companies just a few years ago. Many of our students become product managers or business development people, and so they have a lot of the same skills with lots of overlap. If you’re joining a company still in a seed or pre seed stage, it’s a very different experience than joining a company that’s gone public or is in series D. We’ve been much more active in helping students through that journey and helping them understand the different stages.

JA: The types of businesses that our students are creating have evolved. This is my ninth year at the School. I’ve noticed in the past three or four years that there are bigger, bolder bets—potentially world changing ideas. Whether it’s biotech making large leaps into cures for cancer or social enterprises that address better access to housing or sustainability and climate change, I’m seeing more and more really fascinating companies that our students are thinking about, businesses that I think are going to make an impact on the world.

How do you think about the role of the Rock Center within HBS?
SG: The mission of the School is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. I think that entrepreneurship remains one of the most effective way for a large group of people to do that. There are going to be people who run big organizations or major parts of governments, but they tend to be a few people in a class of a thousand. If you ask how the most people can make a significant difference in the business world, entrepreneurship becomes one of the really powerful levers. The nature of who the person is makes a huge difference compared to a service firm of some kind—consulting or investment banking—those are very useful in the economy but it’s a different kind of difference they make.

JA: The Rock Center serves as the front door for HBS constituents to discover and navigate the entrepreneurship ecosystem here at HBS and at Harvard. It provides connective tissue across our research and teaching agenda and our student and alumni networks. In addition to the student journey and programming that we discussed, we focus heavily on our connections with alumni. Many of our alumni engage in Rock Center programming as judges, coaches, and EiRs. And this year, our “Rock on the Road” programming is holding more than a dozen regional and conference-based alumni convenings on topics ranging from inclusive entrepreneurship to scaling technology. These events have served to strengthen our alumni network and build regional connections in Seattle, London, Atlanta, the Bay Area, Paris, Miami, and more.

Tell us more about the larger ecosystem of support for entrepreneurs here at HBS.
SA: A few years ago there was a clear distinction and some overlap between the different entrepreneurial units, and some duplication of programming. Most of that has been worked out. We’re a small group of people trying to achieve the most impact and targeting different audiences with different resources. All of us are within 50 feet of each other, and there aren’t that many of us in the unit, so a lot of this happens automatically.

JA: There’s a real community that’s lovely to be a part of. There’s overlap with the Rock Center and the Entrepreneurial Management Unit and the ilab. Students take similar classes, participate in Rock Center programs, and then find each other over at the ilab for space—students really feel like they’re part of the Rock community. They’re all traveling in the same patterns and know that the faculty communicate and deliver content to drive them through the various programs—it’s really quite grounded. I love that we have this community of leaders all thinking the same way—what’s good for the students, what’s good for the community, what’s good for people in general and for HBS.

What do you see on the horizon for the Rock Center?
SG: Just like we had a shift when the internet arrived, and everyone had to rethink the definition of business and entrepreneurship for both and small and big companies, we’re going through a very similar shift now with AI being at the cutting edge. The notion of how to deal with uncertainty and things that you don’t know, with technology that is changing very fast but is general purpose so will affect everything. For the next few years, I think the notion of the entrepreneurial way of thinking is going to become really important regardless of what you do. The role of the ilab, Rock Center, and all the initiatives are central to the mission of the school because of the time we’re in.

JA: Our students are developing skills that will have high utility no matter where they go. As alumni, they’re bringing their learnings from the entrepreneurial courses or Rock Center programming into their organizations whether it’s directly applicable to their startups or if they take a more traditional job in a corporate environment. It’s delightful when I get emails from a former student who might be a product manager at a big company like Amazon, saying they participated in Startup Bootcamp because they were curious, and they find themselves applying what they learned in that program to their current job even though they’re not really doing anything that one would call entrepreneurship. There’s a tremendous value in the learning in this area that’s empowering our students and alumni throughout their careers, even if they don’t end up taking an entrepreneurial path.

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