Q&A with Donna DeCarolis: Vision for Drexel's Close School of Entrepreneurship

Donna DeCarolis

Donna DeCarolis, the founding dean of the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship, first had a taste of entrepreneurship as partner in a management strategy consulting firm before coming to Drexel 16 years ago. A management professor associate dean of graduate studies in the University’s LeBow College of Business, as well as Drexel’s associate vice provost for entrepreneurship education, DeCarolis is now stretching her entrepreneurial muscles to build the school from the ground up.

The Close School of Entrepreneurship’s inception came after the Charles and Barbara Close Foundation gave Drexel $500,000 to enlarge the scope of the Laurence A. Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, formerly situated under LeBow College of Business. The goal: to better promote entrepreneurship to all Drexel students and faculty. While serving on university strategic planning committees, DeCarolis had an idea for a school of entrepreneurship that built on Drexel’s commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship across the University and created the proposal. President John A. Fry had been discussing a more comprehensive approach to entrepreneurship at Drexel to the Close Foundation and then presented De Carolis’ proposal. The Close Foundation was convinced, and funded the new school with gifts totaling $12.5 million.

The new school is a freestanding college at Drexel. While entrepreneurship centers are common among universities, a standalone college or school of entrepreneurship is rare in higher education. In addition to housing the Baiada Institute, the Close School will offer its own curriculum and eventually grant degrees. It will launch three programs in the next few months and begin offering elective courses in the Fall of 2013. By 2014, the school will welcome new students and offer joint degrees with other Drexel colleges and schools, giving students both entrepreneurial skills and deep expertise in other disciplines.

checked in with DeCarolis to talk about Drexel’s 14th and newest school.

Why does entrepreneurship belong in its own school?

Entrepreneurship is typically housed in a business school. There is a concentration in entrepreneurship at LeBow, and I originally played a large role in developing that curriculum. But entrepreneurship is really interdisciplinary. The philosophy behind the school is integration across the whole University. Entrepreneurship and innovation are values of Drexel since its inception. We want every student to have access to an entrepreneurial experience both curricular and extra-curricular and the Close School will provide them with paths to accomplish this. By designing the school as independent, we can design a curriculum that attracts students from all disciplines across the University—so it’s easier for students from all disciplines to learn about and experience entrepreneurship.

Being separate allows us to be more integrated and more collaborative.

How do you teach students to be entrepreneurs?

People often ask whether you can create entrepreneurs, but I think the more relevant question is how to teach someone about the process of entrepreneurship. The Close School will focus on the process—how does one identify opportunities, screen those ideas, de-risk models, build a company or a product, and most importantly, accept, learn and move on from failure. The Close School will also teach “corporate entrepreneurship”—how to be innovative in established companies, as corporate entrepreneurship is extremely important to employers.

We will also teach students how to manage their careers in an entrepreneurial way. Upon graduation, students will probably have multiple jobs in various industries over the next 20 or 25 years of their life and, some of those jobs will be self-employment. The Close School will assist students in becoming self-starters and in providing them with the tools to embrace change.

As we design our curriculum and degree programs, certainly business is an important element. If you’re starting a company or even a nonprofit, you can’t get away from business. But entrepreneurship is so much more—we want students to understand that. We want them to understand that entrepreneurship can be part of a career in energy, the environment, design, retail, medical or technology.

Are innovation and entrepreneurship synonymous?

Not synonymous, but related. We define innovation as something relatively new that has the potential to be commercialized. Entrepreneurship is how you do that.

I do a lot of speaking at companies and teach executive education about how companies can be more innovative. Innovation is not something that should be left to chance. If you want to innovate, you don’t wait for an A-ha! moment. Companies and entrepreneurs design cultures of innovation—allowing people to generate and try new ideas; and they also should design cultures of entrepreneurship—providing ways to test and launch those ideas.

That culture of innovation is the idea behind the Close School itself. When you pitched the idea, did you know that you would be the one who lead it?

When I wrote and presented the proposal, I did not envision that I would be the dean of the school. I don’t even think my original proposal mentioned a dean or management structure. When the donors, the Close Foundation, President Fry and the director of Institutional Advancement reviewed the proposal, they thought that I should not only be part of the school, but that I should be the dean.

So now I’m actually in the role of an entrepreneur in building this new school. It’s not like walking into an established school or college—I’m very aware that I’m setting the agenda. I am the leader and dean of the school, and I will incorporate in the Close School not only the aspirations of Mr. Close, but also the traditional entrepreneurial values of Drexel. My goal is to make the Close School of Entrepreneurship the leading school of its kind in higher education. This is a huge responsibility, and I’m grateful for it.

So as you move forward, you are both developing an infrastructure for the school and bringing in new staff. What comes first?

Building infrastructure involves everything from a building a website to learning about the communications, accounting and management that the Close School will be engaged with just like any other college on campus. We need to get it up and running.

What I envision for the school are two groups of faculty. The first will be academic appointments. I’ve asked the other deans for suggestions for senior faculty from all of our schools who would like to have a dual appointment in entrepreneurship. I envision that evolving into a research agenda for the school that is truly interdisciplinary.

The second group of faculty will be clinical teaching faculty—experienced entrepreneurs who will work with students and teach them the process of entrepreneurship as we roll out programs.

I see these two groups complementing each other because entrepreneurship is an applied discipline. Entrepreneurship scholars investigate all types of issues related to new venture creation and survival, in addition to corporate entrepreneurship. We study problems and we try to find the elements that make companies better—better performance, stronger competitive advantage. So what we do on the research side can directly inform practice, and that’s what the Close School is for.

You’ve already announced three new programs. Could you talk about them a little bit?

The first is an Entrepreneurship Living and Learning Community, modeled on other learning communities at Drexel, which will begin with entering freshmen interested in entrepreneurship. We want to create an interdisciplinary environment because students with dreams, big ideas and passion come from every discipline. If we bring together like-minded individuals, they can support each other and perhaps begin the process of starting their own companies. We would provide focused activities on entrepreneurship and innovation—of course, fun ones, too.

The second program is an entrepreneurship co-op, and it will be open to existing students, including students from across the University. The co-op is such a special part of the Drexel experience, and we plan to kick that up a notch. For students who have their own companies, for their second or third co-op, we will let them work for their own companies, and we’ll actually fund them.

Entrepreneurship co-ops were available through the business school, but they were not funded. By providing funds for students to be able to work for their own companies, we are encouraging new venture creation for students. The Close School, through the generosity of the Close Foundation, is able to fund students, and they can use that money just like any co-op toward living expenses, or they can put it back into their venture.

The third product is a clinical course called “Launch It” that has a screening process to get into the class. It’s not for developing business plans—it’s where you actually begin the process of launching your company. We’ll advise students, help bring together resources through the University, and provide seed money in the class so they can actually get their businesses started.

So what are your own biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is that there is so much to do. The study of strategy has taught me that at the end of the day, we can’t do everything. When I work with my team, we have to decide what initiatives we want to do in two or three years and what we have to tackle now. And of course we have longer-term, bigger objectives to work toward as well.

I truly believe that Drexel has the capability to pull this off. We have a culture here that is more collaborative than your typical university. We’re much more innovative, much more entrepreneurial. That spirit already exists here.

Another key factor on any new venture is the importance of a leader. I know I’ll have an impact on this school, but I’m talking about how President Fry has really emphasized the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship as we move into the 21st century. President Fry’s leadership and his strong belief in those values is why this is a win at Drexel in particular.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response from everywhere around the school, from alumni and in the business community The kudos that this University is getting—it’s just incredible. The business community wants individuals who have innovative spirits and a broad base of knowledge, who are resilient, who take initiative. The Close School fulfills that market need by preparing students to be entrepreneurial.