Why an Entrepreneurial Mindset Is Essential for Success in Today's Knowledge Economy Here's why an entrepreneurial mindset is crucial for academics looking to become successful business owners, leaders or entrepreneurs.

By Terrell Strayhorn, PhD

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Creating an entrepreneurial mindset is a critical component for academics looking to become successful business owners, leaders or entrepreneurs — whom I refer to as academipreneurs. By using digital platforms, innovative technologies, massive open online tools (e.g., MOOCs) and proven business practices to establish and promote their own unique brand, entrepreneurial intellectuals can stand out in a crowded academic labor market, attract new funding and partnerships, seize new opportunities and boost their credibility as subject matter experts in their respective field.

Countless examples of successful academipreneurs abound. In fact, there's a long history of this kind of activity in some fields like medicine, law, nursing and counseling, where academic faculty in specialized professions taught courses at not-for-profit universities while simultaneously running successful for-profit clinics, law firms and private practices. Medical experts have founded pharmaceutical companies, specializing in the development of experimental drugs, vaccine therapies and new cancer treatments. Law faculty have leveraged their expertise to launch enterprising, revenue-generating legal clinics, consulting firms and even technology startups that help people draft legal documents using artificial intelligence.

There are other scholars and intellectuals who have successfully turned their academic knowledge and expertise into profitable businesses. For instance, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a highly-regarded astrophysicist who leveraged his personality and scientific mastery to become a media guru hosting popular shows like StarTalk Radio. Angela Duckworth, a well-known psychologist who studied grit, wrote a bestselling book, founded Character Lab, monetized educational interventions and co-hosts a podcast, all contributing to an estimated net worth of $15 million, according to sources. Though not taught in most graduate programs or emphasized in faculty job announcements, an entrepreneurial mindset can go a long way in academe.

Related: 5 Critical Questions You Must Ask Yourself to Master an Entrepreneurial Mindset

Entrepreneurial mindset

According to sources, an entrepreneurial mindset (EM) is defined as the inclination to discover, evaluate, and exploit (or make use of) opportunities. It has five defining characteristics that include:

  1. Passionately seeking new opportunities

  2. Pursuing opportunities with enormous discipline

  3. Pursuing only the very best opportunities with intentionality and focus

  4. Focusing on execution amid realities of change and uncertainty

  5. Engaging the energies of everyone in their domain

EM comprises a set of skills and interrelated beliefs that enable people, including academipreneurs, to be future-focused, resilient, resourceful and solution-oriented, making the most of a situation regardless of the prevailing conditions. To this end, authors have come to explain EM as mental habits tied to three key elements, known as the 3 Cs: curiosity, connections and creating value. Spotting and seizing possible opportunities despite resource constraints (curiosity), assessing financial and psychological risks (connections) and taking calculated action(s) that create value for others are all positive attributes of an entrepreneurial mindset.

Admittedly, there are some drawbacks or potential challenges that must be managed when operating according to this framework, including self-serving bias, overcommitment and taking new opportunities without attention to associated risks, to name a few.

Calls for an entrepreneurial mindset abound in academe. The term appears in over 2,000 job postings at HigherEdJobs at the time of this writing. For example, a private, 4-year, co-educational university in New Jersey seeks a chief executive officer who will provide strategic vision and "entrepreneurial leadership" to ensure the sustainability of the institution's remarkable success in academic and operational excellence. As a former chief academic officer, I, too, have noticed an uptick in the number of schools looking for entrepreneurial academic leaders who present a proven track record in building market-driven degree programs, incentivizing faculty productivity and monetizing intellectual innovations, all while respecting time-honored traditions like academic freedom and shared governance.

Related: 5 Ways to Cultivate an Entrepreneurial Mindset

Ways academics can use entrepreneurial mindsets

Indeed, bringing an EM to the work gives a competitive advantage to executive leadership job candidates. It can also be essential for enterprising academic faculty. Faculty who aspire to connect their scholarship to broader audiences, monetize research tools (e.g., surveys) or generate revenue from curriculum materials and research products benefit from adopting an entrepreneurial mindset. Here are four tips on how academic entrepreneurs can use EM to enhance their success:

1. Think outside the box:

Successful academic entrepreneurs are often those who are able to find unique solutions to problems and challenge the status quo. By thinking outside the box, academipreneurs can bring fresh perspectives to their industry and develop innovative, evidence-based solutions that set them apart from competitors outside of academe. For example, as previously mentioned, faculty in law and counseling overcame challenges of physical distance presented by the Covid-19 pandemic by launching new startups with technology experts to offer telehealth, legal aid and counseling services online or via smart devices.

2. Network with intention:

Developing a robust professional network is critical for entrepreneurial success. By building relationships with people who have experience and expertise both within and outside their industry, academic entrepreneurs can gain valuable insights, advice, capital and support. Interindustry networking can also provide exciting opportunities for collaboration and scalable partnerships, which can help to accelerate growth, improve operational efficiencies and attract big funders.

3. Embrace failure:

Failure is a natural part of the entrepreneurial journey, not to mention the scientific method that's so essential to research discovery. Rather than seeing failure as a setback, academipreneurs should view it as an opportunity to learn, grow and get better. It's important to take time to reflect on what went wrong, the lessons learned and identify areas for future improvement, a process that I refer to as "failing forward."

As one of my supervisors would say: "Go ahead. Succeed or fail. If you fail, just fail toward the future and learn something useful from it." By embracing failure and reframing it as instructive, academic entrepreneurs can become more resilient business leaders, less risk-averse and better equipped to handle challenges down the road.

4. Be persistent:

Persistence is key for entrepreneurial success, regardless of your industry. Challenges and setbacks are inevitable, but the most successful entrepreneurs are those who don't give up in the face of adversity. Instead, they use setbacks as fuel to keep moving forward and pursuing their goals. Persistence also means being willing to adapt and pivot when necessary to stay on track toward success.

Related: 4 Lessons on Making the Leap from Academia to Entrepreneurship

One personal example drawn from my own experience relates to the near-universal shutdown of in-person conferences due to the imminent threat of Covid-19. The end of in-person conferences drastically curtailed my invitations to keynote meetings. I quickly restructured the company to hire more remote workers, monetize intellectual property, digitize popular presentations, and offer on-demand research consulting and fee-based online trainings.

By incorporating these tips into an entrepreneurial mindset, academics can develop the skills and mindset needed for success in the world of entrepreneurship. With a willingness to take risks and a future-focused perspective on innovation, academipreneurs can achieve their goals and impact bigger and broader audiences while making a difference in the world.

Terrell Strayhorn, PhD

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Professor at Virginia Union University; CEO of Do Good Work Consulting

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn is Professor of Education and Psychology at Virginia Union University. Author of 12 books and over 200 peer-reviewed articles and academic reports, Strayhorn is a leading DEI expert and owns a consulting firm.

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