Johnson's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute takes its expertise global
Alumni entrepreneurs visit Saudi Arabia to mentor business teams from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
February 21, 2011
In January, the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute at Johnson shared its expertise with a group of aspiring innovators from the Middle East through a collaborative program with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), one of the leading universities in the Middle East renowned for bringing together some of the finest Science and Technology students from a vast array of countries. Wesley Sine, professor of Entrepreneurship and Personal Enterprise at Johnson, and Johnson Ph.D. student Chad Carlos led the program in Saudi Arabia that included the participation of 13 Johnson alumni and instructors.
This 10-day course was designed to offer a glimpse into the entrepreneurship process that many participants had never experienced. In total, 42 graduate students from 10 countries participated in the program along with 11 senior executives from companies in Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Japan. The students worked in teams to generate a business plan and each team was assisted by a mentor who was a Cornell Alumni with extensive entrepreneurial experience.
"This course was path breaking for this corner of the world, and what a pleasure it was to work with Amin Shibani and Faran Siddiqi from KAUST, whose partnership enabled the experience," said Sine. "This is a region where large family business groups dominate the economic landscape, social and governmental obstacles are tough, and the barriers to entrepreneurship are daunting. Most funding is via wealthy investors with a few universities like KAUST dabbling in early stage seed funds. Venture capital is rare."
The teams were diverse in terms of background, nationality, and (most unusually for many) gender. Although 50 percent of the students came from the Middle East, the other half represented countries from around the globe including China, Pakistan, Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan, UK, Indonesia, and Chile. The students also came from very diverse educational backgrounds including Bioscience, Geophysics, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, Marine Science, and Applied Mathematics.
The task of identifying an opportunity in the Arab Middle East and writing a business plan around it in 10 days was extremely difficult. "Many students struggled at first," said Sine. "Most of the students had very little entrepreneurial experience and we had very high expectations. The improvement of the teams over the 10-day period was extraordinary. Students who had never written a business plan were able to identify innovative opportunities to address real problems and developed well-defined plans for commercializing their ideas. The business ideas ranged from solar water pumps that would save farmers and the country of Saudi Arabia hundreds of millions of dollars to online payment services like Paypal, which do not currently exist in the region."
Sine said that at first many participants felt out of their comfort zone and some tears were even shed in the process, however, things came together and in the end each team identified a legitimate opportunity in the Middle East that Sine hopes the students will continue to develop. Steffi Guan, a Ph.D. student in Bioscience remarked, "My background is in biosciences. But it turned out that the Cornell Entrepreneurship Certificate Program was the most challenging experience I’ve ever had." Student Tawfeq Al-Shams said, "It wasn't a training course, it was a process of CHANGE. The way I used to think, learn, plan, implement and adapt [were] changed during these two weeks."
The students were very grateful for the help they received from their Cornell mentors. These included Zach Schulman, Charles Hamilton, Carl Forsythe, Brad Treat, Tom Schryver, Elisa Miller-Out, Jon Greene, Jon Kaiden, and David Rickerby. Additionally, alumni Kevin McGovern and Steve Gal both spent time at KAUST helping instruct the students and refine their entrepreneurial skills and build their confidence. Student Jose Ramos remarked, "This course basically took me outside my comfort zone of math, engineering and science. It showed me a different reality of how business is actually conducted out there. My self-confidence definitely was very much boosted. Now I figure, if I can pitch to Kevin McGovern, I’ll have no problem with any body else."
"The students were effusive in their enthusiasm for the program," said Sine. "And we couldn't be more excited with the outcome of this endeavor and we hope this is the beginning of a long relationship with KAUST."
Dr. Mohammed Al-Ansari, the director of the R&D center for Saudi Aramco said "This was the best program I have ever participated in." In her comments at the certificate ceremony, student Princess Sara Al-Saud said, "I speak on behalf of the class when I say that this experience has been a unique, interesting, entertaining, and - most of all - a challenging learning experience. I know that opportunities like this don’t come very often, and therefore it will always be cherished."
Keep watch for the spring ’11 issue of Enterprise and Enterprise online for more about the KAUST experience and Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Johnson
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