Two essentials for every entrepreneur

Jeffrey Jensen is a One Young World Ambassador from the USA. He was a delegate speaker in the Education Plenary Session at the 2014 Summit in Dublin. He co-founded a startup called Z0lver, which develops open source hardware and software to teach difficult maths and engineering subjects to students through game-like scenarios.

This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post.

Think of a time when you had a great idea. Was it solving a complex problem? Coming up with an innovative product? Transforming a social movement?  Enabling a campaign for change? Perhaps it was something that could change your world, or indeed, the world. Now reflect back and consider what prevented you from pursuing it - a lack of resources, time, or expertise – maybe a fear of the unknown? For myself, I thought ideas alone could allow the mind to look past what others say is impossible and find a way to proceed when reality says stop. But in fact I stopped many times. I asked myself why I couldn't put ideas into action. What was I missing? I believe it was just that I hadn't been taught how to be an entrepreneur. 

So what in fact was I taught to be? I had achieved academic success from high school to a doctoral degree in engineering, and felt technically qualified to develop technologies on a par with Facebook or Microsoft, but I hadn’t formed a business model around these ideas. This was frustrating because many great companies have been founded by individuals who achieved success without advanced degrees. As such, I know firsthand that academia teaches rules, boundaries, and equations, but I also realized that outside-the-box thinking (especially in STEM fields) is rare since curriculum requirements are rigid and grades are the primary measure of achievement. A Harvard University study reinforced this for me by showing how student success in college is weighted heavily on instruction that encourages creativity rather than the regurgitation of specific course content. Personally, this underscores why learning skills is valuable, but it alone does not guarantee entrepreneurial success in the real world.

With this in mind, I sought help from mentors and teachers, who I considered successful entrepreneurs, to learn two essential skills that I didn’t learn in the classroom: creativity and focus. Since becoming an entrepreneur, I am determined to teach these skills to help and inspire others.

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One of the first steps forward in this journey has been to examine how creativity and innovation can become an integral part of the learning experience. As a group of educators, we are developing Z0lver (pronounced "solver") as an answer to bridging creativity and innovation by using concepts from basic circuits to advanced RF/microwave design. These concepts are what make the wireless world ‘wireless’, and our product encourages new learners and those with extensive subject knowledge to become more engaged through game-like problems; instead of conventional textbook learning methods.

Through numerous studies, we observe how games encourage learning, motivation and engagement, and we believe this is a positive new approach to teach difficult subjects in math, science, and engineering. These skills are required to make transformative leaps in technology, and support for Z0lver’s development by DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) and the U.S. Army Research Office (ARO) has enabled us to develop this as a tool to enhance education in areas with critical skill gaps. We have enrolled a number of top engineering schools and high schools to participate in the beta project, and expect a number of universities worldwide within the next year to be part of the Z0lver program.

I realize tools that can teach creativity only motivate the conception of the idea. It is focus and persistence which are the keys to execution and endurance. Many potential entrepreneurs tend to lose focus and move on too quickly when an idea seemingly fails. So how can focus be taught? At Siemens, I tested this by creating a two-day workshop on innovation and focus. It requires teams to build and solve a problem with our off-the-shelf products and raw materials, but the rules and small goals change every two hours, while the end result remains the same. This is an attempt to simulate life as an entrepreneur; these changes resemble problems that arise, mistakes which happen, and products that fail. However, focus must remain on the end goal. Entrepreneurs are successful when they see the project throughout its lifetime, and I’ve learned that focus itself will tell you when it’s really time to quit.

I believe these concepts are the lifeblood of entrepreneurship in many industries, especially the tech industry. Companies founded on these concepts change and impact our daily lives: providing jobs, improving the economy, and solving world problems. Many great examples are found in Silicon Valley which have created over 400 thousand jobs and captured nearly half of all US venture capital investments. Other industries, campaigns, and even countries can equally benefit by adopting these concepts into respective practices, especially when taught in education.

While I believe creativity and focus have given me success; I don’t think there is a single solution to teach entrepreneurship, but we are creating tools and opportunities that will help to teach it as a skill.  Z0lver and innovation workshops are, in my opinion, great starts. Undoubtedly, the world has benefitted from human creativity and action in so many ways that we must continue to support it through education. My call to you, whether you think you’re an entrepreneur or not, is to take your big idea, put it into action, and then pass what you’ve learned onto others - because the world needs you to teach the thinkers, leaders, and creators of the next generation.

Above: Jeffrey's delegate speech at the One Young World Summit 2014 in Dublin.