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Business as usual

The practice of entrepreneurship and the practice of innovation have become entangled in American culture and at Duke. Entrepreneurs earn wide admiration in the public sphere for their ability to reinvent and revitalize, but entrepreneurial activity has incorrectly come to define our idea of what it means to innovate.

Simple reflection shows that this is a true conflation: Startups need new ideas to be successful, but the collection of attitudes that constitute ‘innovativeness’—an openness to disruption, say, or an acute perception of opportunity on the horizon— are sorely needed in every sphere of human activity, from literary criticism to hamburger cooking, and are no less vital there than in Silicon Valley.

Duke is not outside the reach of this error. The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative awkwardly juggles these two divergent pedagogical goals in its title alone: the broad practice of innovation, and the more specific practice of starting and managing a startup company.

As with so much juggling, a ball has dropped: Four of five course offerings affiliated with the initiative attend solely to entrepreneurship, and the fifth gestures strongly towards it. Likewise, the initiative’s signature projects so far—a Duke in Silicon Valley summer program, for example, and the new entrepreneurship curriculums and degrees in the Law School—are heavy on the ‘E’ and light on the ‘I.’ It is unclear to us how much combining innnovation with entrepreneurship is a mere attempt to commoditize and cash in on a trendy idea. But it is also problematic in that it represents a genuine confusion of two important goals, and the subordination of one to the other.

We do not mean this discussion as a strong criticism of the initiative—its sights are obviously trained on entrepreneurship and not innovation more generally. But mixing up entrepreneurship and innovation does more than muddy the waters—it has pernicious implications. Training students to innovate, both in the disciplines and in life, is a pedagogical goal in its own right. If entrepreneurship is placed at the core of innovation, two bad consequences follow:

First, we assume starting a business entails innovation. The negative outcome here is that students who take themselves to be learning an important general skill—innovation—learn the more mundane skill of starting a business, and cannot tell the difference. We have all seen enough students hammer strained ideas into iPhone apps for the sake of having invented an app—any old app—to know that this practice leads nowhere.

Second, we assume that innovation entails starting a business. The negative outcome here is that students with no desire to start a business, but with an innovative bent, become alienated from that important characteristic. Startups are far from the only place where innovation is needed. Interestingly, Duke students have not started companies in lieu of employment in greater numbers since the beginning of the initiative. Students seeking employment still need to be trained in innovation, and to recognize that it has a significant role outside of entrepreneurship.

Both of these problems can be avoided by explicitly decoupling these two concepts, and by marking institutional developments that address innovation outside of entrepreneurship.


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