MIT Entrepreneurship: Pirates, Navy SEALs

Bill Aulet of MIT Sloan. Courtesy photo

Bill Aulet of MIT Sloan      – courtesy photo

In case you forgot, there was a lot happening in 1990. For example, Time, Inc. and Warner Communications merged, creating media goliath Time Warner. It was also the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the Hubble space telescope was launched, the World Wide Web was created and Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby, was ripping through Billboard charts.

Indeed, times were good. Times were also beginning to be good in the realm of entrepreneurship. In 1994, America had a little more than 550,000 “establishments” less than a year old, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. By 2010, there were more than 634,000 establishments less than a year old. At the forefront was the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, established in 1990 by professors Florence Sender and Ed Roberts.

MIT’s entrepreneurship legacy has deep roots, with founders behind companies such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Dropbox and Buzzfeed (to namedrop a very few). In all, since 1990, more than 26,000 ventures have come out of the center. Moreover, at least three million jobs have been created and $2 trillion has been generated by those companies. If all of the center-founded ventures were a country, it would have the 11th largest economy in the world.


At the helm of all of this is professor Bill Aulet, the managing director of the center. Aulet’s accomplishments are numerous and diverse. He played professional basketball for a season in the U.K. He is a serial entrepreneur and has raised more than $100 million in funds for his own ventures, which have, in turn, generated hundreds of millions of dollars in market value. Perhaps the two most notable companies he was been a part of are Cambridge Decision Dynamics and SensAble Technologies. He also wrote the book Disciplined Entrepreneurship.

Since becoming the managing director at the center three years ago, Aulet has implemented many programs, some of which include the MIT Clean Energy Prize, the MIT Entrepreneurship Review, the t=0 Entrepreneurship Festival and Trust Center TV.

Aulet has seen a lot in his 25 years of founding his own companies and personally funding others. He knows his stuff. And he sees entrepreneurship as “the hot thing.”

“We have more interest than ever before,” Aulet says. “And when I started there were already a lot of people who did it. But there was also a bubble (of people) that thought entrepreneurship was easy. Entrepreneurship is not easy. It requires discipline and rigor. It’s very, very difficult from the beginning.”


Aulet sees the student entrepreneurs coming to the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship fitting into four categories. The first are the students who are curious and want to be entrepreneurs but are not sure what exactly they want to do. Then there is the group of students who know they want to be entrepreneurs and will be, but are one step away. The next is the group that have entrepreneurial mindsets but not risk-taking personalities – they become entrepreneurs within an organization. The final group is made up of the ones who want to understand entrepreneurship and come to the center simply wanting to learn.

These different approaches to entrepreneurship highlight a central issue: How do you define entrepeneurship? Can it be defined?

“Is entrepreneurship someone who doesn’t have a venture and then creates one?” Aulet says. “That is limiting. I see more today than before, young people who take entrepreneurship skills and are entrepreneurs and go into governments, or NGOs, or companies and create their own things. Entrepreneurship is broad.


“We teach students how to fish, not how to simply catch a fish.” The center is meant to breed entrepreneurial skills — not necessarily ventures. Aulet cites many studies that show successful ventures are often started years after graduation. Aulet and the faculty at the center view one type of success as a student trying an idea and deciding, “this isn’t for me.”

So how does a center that values failed ideas have so much success? For one, it has to do with the tradition of MIT.

“We believe in a disciplined approach,” Aulet says. “It takes a spirit of a pirate but the discipline of a Navy SEAL. What’s unique about MIT is the culture of the analytic approach. For every decision we ask for the data to back it up. But it’s not just analytics. There is a strong spirit with the technical approach.”


And that strong spirit is entrenched in MIT roots.

“MIT is a land grant institute and was started to train immigrants and the children of immigrants,” Aulet continues. “There are no honorary doctorates. No one graduates with honors from MIT. That’s complete BS. If your mommy or daddy went there, that doesn’t mean anything. Everyone who goes here has to earn it. It’s a school of great diversity and this is totally correlated with entrepreneurship.”

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