My #1 Favorite Thing About Academia and How You Can Apply It to Entrepreneurship (Or Any Occupation!)

About 3 and a half years ago, I entered the Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Organizations PhD program at the University of Tennessee (UT). I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by top-tier scholars here at UT who helped me navigate my development as a researcher and teacher. Below, I’ll briefly describe my favorite thing about the academic profession and tie it to actionable advice for new entrepreneurs.

My favorite thing about academia is the mentorship process. It seems hardwired into the community that when someone needs help: help them! I have found evidence of this both at UT and in the much larger academic field of management, which spans the globe. Within the UT department, I have lost count of the number of times that I have walked into a faculty members office with a question, and had them immediately stop what they were doing to give me their full attention. Often times, these faculty members must know that: (1) my question is probably a bit silly and something I could find on my own if I tried hard enough, (2) their choice to help me likely does not influence their pay, and (3) answering my questions is an interruption to the important work they need to accomplish! Nonetheless, every time I walk into their office with a question, I get their full attention, and leave the office with actionable steps to improve on the issue I had.

Within the broader academic community, it is very hard to describe exactly how committed everyone is to helping each other out. Fortunately, I have an exemplary circumstance to make it clear! I am a member of the Academy of Management Entrepreneurship Division. My first time attending the Entrepreneurship Division Social, which is likely termed ‘social’ as a way to encourage more informal discussion, I instead chose to walk around with a tiny notebook and pencil, asking as many people as would listen to me for advice on a data collection I was preparing. So, imagine you are at a social event, and this crazy person is going around asking you to work for their benefit by picking your brain for 15-20 minutes. Would you help them? How many people do you think gave me advice at this meeting? I’ll tell you: 100% of the people I asked for advice, gave me advice. All in all, this amounted to over 15 scholars, all of whom had far more experience than I did, and whose contributions made the study possible.

For an early stage entrepreneur, what is the takeaway here? In short, those who have already been where you want to be are the best ones to ask for advice and guidance, and they are also likely the most willing to give it to you! If you want to learn more about entrepreneurship, or want advice on an idea, get out there and start talking to the entrepreneurial community! Here are some actionable steps to get you started:

  1. Practice your introduction. You need to start with something concise that introduces yourself and gets right to the point. For example, when I introduced myself at the Entrepreneurship Division Social, I always started with the same thing: “Hi, my name is Mike Lerman, and I am a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Tennessee. I study entrepreneurial well-being, and am currently working on a study to understand how entrepreneurs experience stress. Would you be open to giving me some advice on the project?”
  2. Develop a list of questions that you want the answer to. You don’t necessarily need to print it out and carry it with you, but the process of thinking through the questions that you need answers to most will go a long way towards helping you drive the conversation.
  3. Find where the entrepreneurs are! Wherever you are, there are likely entrepreneurs lurking around. Look for: (1) local entrepreneurial support organizations (here at Knoxville we have the Knoxville Entrepreneurship Center; http://knoxec.com/), (2) small businesses, (3) those around you who may know entrepreneurs.
  4. Document while they are talking! Carry a small notebook to write down the important things they are saying. The benefits of this are twofold: (1) it helps you remember what they are saying, and (2) it shows that you care about their advice!
  5. Implement and Iterate! At this point, you have successfully found an early-stage mentor who has given you advice and likely their contact information. Put forth an honest effort to accomplish whatever task they gave you as quickly as possible (without sacrificing quality). Then, touch base them with your results and further advice. In speaking with several academics and entrepreneurs, one of the biggest reasons a mentorship does not develop is because the mentee simply does not follow the advice of the mentor. Of course, this defeats the entire purpose of getting advice to begin with!

In closing, I can speak from experience and say that I would have had no shot making it through the PhD program without excellent mentors. In fact, the willingness of the entire academic community to assist me in various ways has proven to be my favorite part about the profession. If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur (or in any profession), finding a strong mentor and implementing their advice could be a strong influence towards your success!

Does anything about this post stand out to you? What are you thinking after reading this? Please leave a comment below to let me know! Thank you for reading!

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