Getting Science ‘Geeks’ into the Corner Office

Getting Science 'Geeks' into the Corner Office

What often stops scientists and techies from achieving their full potential is an inability to turn a brilliant invention into a money-making enterprise. So what are business schools doing to address this challenge?

Think of the most high-profile entrepreneurs of recent years, people who have not just created hugely successful businesses but who have actually changed the way the world lives and works. I’d be willing to bet that some of the names that come to mind would be Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg (and the guys from Instagram, if you really follow this stuff). So what else do these three gentlemen have in common, other than making Warren Buffett look like someone sporting a “will work for food” sign? They all started off as the geeks of their high school classes, the sort of individuals who almost never are dubbed “most likely to succeed” in the yearbook.

The interesting thing, however, about these three business icons, and a whole host of techies who have followed in their footsteps, is that this is the group that tends to come up with ideas that really work. But what often stops them from achieving their full potential is an inability to turn a brilliant invention into a money-making enterprise. So what are business schools doing to address this challenge?

A number of U.S. schools are reaching out to their engineering counterparts. Stanford Graduate School of Business, for example, has numerous joint classes and programs with its parent university’s engineering school. And at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, students and alumni are encouraged to set up companies based on technological ideas generated by the university’s science and engineering faculties through the snappily named Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise & Commercialization.

The Krannert School of Management, the business school of one of the country’s top engineering universities, Purdue, has taken this idea of developing the next generation of technical entrepreneurs to an international level and has also committed itself to trying to catch them at a younger age than the typical MBA student.

Krannert’s approach has been to partner with one of Europe’s leading entrepreneur-friendly schools, EMLyon, and China’s Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, in the Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP). The program targets what are described as “pre-experience” students – first-degree graduates with little or no exposure to the corporate workplace apart from internships. According to Patrice Houdayer, the driving force behind the program at EMLyon, the idea is to embed business thinking into the technical development of a new idea right from its very earliest stages.

But it’s also seen as vital to equip graduates with the tools and knowledge they’ll need to take their product to key international markets at the earliest opportunity. “New businesses used to have to move through a distinct series of growth steps—garage, local, national, and international,” says Houdayer. “Now, thanks to the communications revolution, they can leapfrog these stages and go global more or less straightaway, but in doing so they can face a whole new set of problems and challenges. The program plugs them into an international network of contacts, prepares them for dealing with contrasting cultures, and exposes them to the different ways that business is conducted around the globe.”

So can we expect the GEP, and initiatives at Stanford, Cornell, and elsewhere, to turn large numbers of engineers and scientists into the next generation of business leaders? Nice though the idea might be, it seems the reality is slightly more limited.

“Whether you are taking someone into an entrepreneurship program at the MBA or a more junior level, it’s key to make sure that the student is ready for the experience and is really going to do something with it,” says Houdayer. “You can develop and support entrepreneurial flair, but you can’t conjure it out of thin air. For some people, the lab or design shop will always be the right place to be.”

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