As director of the Derby Entrepreneurship Center at Tufts, Elaine Chen leads a thriving center for all things entrepreneurship. She oversees year-round programming that works overtime to reduce barriers to entrepreneurship, whether in the more traditional sense of running a startup or in the broader sense of innovating in any field. A website offers hundreds of articles for self-directed learning, while programs include Jumbo Café workshops, alumni networking events, the $ 100,000 New Ventures competition, and the Tufts Venture summer program. Accelerator for students, recent alumni, and members of the Tufts community.
The Center “teaches our students how to bring together their knowledge and curiosity to take the first step towards change related to what they are passionate about,” said Chen, who teaches innovation and entrepreneurship as a family teacher. Cummings of the practice of entrepreneurship.
Chen joined Tufts in the fall of 2020 from MIT, where she was a senior lecturer and entrepreneur-in-residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. A graduate of MIT with two degrees in mechanical engineering, she began her career in tech startups, where her innovation skills led to executive positions in engineering and product management at the vice president level in startups such as Rethink Robotics, Zeo, Zeemote and SensAble Technologies. She has marketed many hardware and software products (she holds 22 patents) and is the author of Bring a physical product to the market: navigate the crazy adventure from concept to mass production.
clumps now recently sat down with Chen to talk about what it means to be an entrepreneur today and how Tufts helps students develop the skills and mindset needed to lead change.
clumps now: It seems that 2021 has been a pivotal year for the center: it has a new name, thanks to a generous gift of a former director, and also a new home at Joyce Cummings Center. Does this signal a new era of entrepreneurship at Tufts?
Elaine Chen: It’s an exciting time. Our identity is more visible, our location closer to the university hub and our aspirations have grown. Our ambition for the Center is to redefine the word entrepreneurship on and off campus and make everyone feel like the entrepreneurial way of working is accessible to them.
I want to offer a touchpoint, or some sort of experience in entrepreneurship education, to anyone who wants it. In the summer of 2022, we will be reaching out to high school students; we are launching a pre-university program with the idea that we can broaden our regional impact. We also plan to reach more graduate students enrolled in residential programs. We want to continue to serve our alumni and stay in touch with them throughout their careers. Forty years from now, I want them to come back to Tufts and share their stories!
Our ambition is simple: whatever your needs, your interests and the time zone you are in, we are here to help you.
How has the pandemic shifted the focus of the entrepreneurial world? Does this raise new challenges, new opportunities?
Absoutely! The pandemic shows the importance of having an entrepreneurial mindset and skills. It highlights the need to be quick and to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. Just when you think things are back to normal, you get thrown a curveball. Now, if you have an entrepreneurial way of seeing the world, that’s just another day. You just have to find a way to move forward on a daily basis.
Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen a lot of new businesses. Everyone who has ventured into home fitness has done very well. I know someone who was investigating how difficult it was for people to get a PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans, and then they just started a business to help people get PPP loans.
I think the crisis has reframed not only the way we think about business, but also the way we do business. If you are an entrepreneur, you may find an opportunity to provide solutions where others might see only frustration and chaos.
What is your advice to the future entrepreneur in this environment?
The pandemic can be very destabilizing. A lot of people probably feel really stressed out. We see this in a classroom; you see it in conversations with students.
My message to them is this: you have this. You can find a way forward. Do not be afraid.
There is a quote from [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau from the World Economic Forum several years ago, which I like. He said: “The pace of change has never been faster, but it will never be so slow again. It’s going to keep going, and that’s a good thing; That’s exciting. Innovators and budding entrepreneurs must accept the idea that they can figure it out and believe in themselves.
How to define entrepreneurship?
When most people think of the entrepreneur, they think of someone like Elon Musk [CEO of Tesla and SpaceX] and they say, well, it’s not me. It’s not relevant to me. And when they think of entrepreneurship, they think of startups. But that’s a very narrow and overly restrictive definition of the word entrepreneur and the word entrepreneurship.
For me, entrepreneurship is much more than that. Entrepreneurship is about a way of thinking and working; it’s a combination of mindset and skills.
In terms of state of mind, it is innate in everyone. Everyone knows how to learn. It is the belief that you can figure things out along the way; you can iterate until you get the right solution. It means you don’t overthink things, fall into analysis paralysis, end up thinking you can cook up the perfect plan. This is not how the world works.
On the skills side, you need to know how to do primary market research and secondary market research. You have to know how to lead a digital marketing campaign and organize a sales force. You must know how to calculate the economy of your unit. These are teachable skills. And once they’re combined with the right mindset, you’re on your way to becoming an entrepreneur.
Our job as educators is to make this mindset and skill learning accessible. We can teach students how to iterate through the entrepreneurial process, and if they don’t feel the mindset at first, they learn it. They can learn to be flexible and adaptable.
On that teaching note, the Center’s undergraduate program now attracts over 700 students, and the Entrepreneurship Minor is one of the top choices for undergraduates. You also recently created a minor social impact entrepreneurship with Tisch College. What do you think of what students expect from entrepreneurship studies?
It’s always exciting to be in a classroom with them. I teach Entrepreneurship 101, and right now my student demographic mix is 70% Liberal Arts, 20% Engineering School, then a combination of Museum School students. fine arts and other schools.
What I am observing is that the students at Tufts are very keen to make changes. They say: I want to make a difference. They care about sustainability, food waste reduction, clothing waste reduction. They care about racial injustice, diversity and civic discourse.
What I hear the most is: how to start? It may seem overwhelming. But if you are given the mindset and the skills, you can reflect on what you can understand, where you have the ability, at your level, to make a difference. Everyone has the power to make small, medium or big changes.
Much of the innovation and entrepreneurship content we offer teaches our students how to bring together their knowledge and curiosity to take that first step towards change related to the things they are passionate about. They don’t need to have any idea where to start; we give them several different ways to explore what entrepreneurship means to them and discover that they can indeed make an impact.
Where is Tufts a leader in generating ideas and entrepreneurial ventures?
Tufts is unique in that it does not have a business school, but it does have a few areas where the university itself is a thought leader. When it comes to social impact, no one else has the strengths of Tufts. Tufts is also particularly strong in health and life sciences, as we have four professional schools in the health sciences.
Finally, a general question: why is an entrepreneurship center important to Tufts?
I am convinced of the importance of entrepreneurial thinking; basically, it’s a great life skill that can benefit everyone, and therefore it can amplify your experience of whatever you choose to study here at Tufts. We’re a university-wide resource for finding out what you’re capable of, and sometimes that may surprise you!
I can relate this to my own career. For a very long time, I thought: I have to find a job. It was still work. Then I started to take ownership of my work experience and realized that I could make a change. I could lead my life. If I needed to make a change, I could do it. This is really it, to think like an entrepreneur. An entrepreneurial mindset draws its strength from knowing that you have the agency. How can you say no to that?