‘Lean Startup’ Evangelist Steve Blank Builds B-School Pipeline

Entrepreneur and teacher Kit Halversen - Ethan Baron photo

Entrepreneur and teacher Kit Halversen – Ethan Baron photo

“Those are really important for everybody, despite their interest in innovation or entrepreneurship,” Halversen says. “They’re important as you navigate through life. You’ll probably have a lot more opportunities if you aren’t paralyzed in social situations. If you’re able to empathize with people, you’re able to build stronger relationships.”


As lean methodology sweeps through business and engineering schools, and educators begin to hit young people with it early, a number of U.S. government agencies are putting scientists through the Innovation Corps (iCorps) program Blank has adapted from Lean LaunchPad to help federally funded scientists create commercial products out of their research. In July, Ohio’s Department of Higher Education announced iCorps Ohio, after Governor John Kasich called research commercialization a prime factor in job creation and called on colleges and universities to make it a top priority. Sixty faculty teams are to be trained in lean methods over the next three years.

Blank’s influence is also spreading beyond borders. One of his disciples is taking lean startup to the developing world. Alethea Paradis runs Peace Works Travel, a non-profit working in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cuba, and Rwanda, and slated to expand next year to Bosnia, Croatia, Chile, and Guatemala. “Our mission is experiential learning and social entrepreneurship in countries recovering from conflict,” says Paradis, a former lawyer. The organization started as a “voluntourism” program that brought middle school, high school, and college students to post-conflict countries for community-service projects.

“I realized after doing this a couple of years, how completely wrong it is,” Paradis says. “It’s colonial: here come the well-meaning white people who are going to paint your walls because you can’t possibly hold a paintbrush.”

She began looking for another way to operate. Then she met Kehaya, who introduced her to the lean methodology, and she took Blank’s Lean LaunchPad for Educators workshop. “That just revolutionized what we were doing and since then the projects the kids have done are so amazing,” Paradis says.


Now, the projects often focus on developing livelihoods in communities. A group taken to Laos, to learn video storytelling, interviewed members of a family whose patriarch had lost both legs to Vietnam War-era cluster bombs, which still kill or maim a person a day in the region. Family members told the young Americans about their struggle to live without a breadwinner.

The kids applied lean methodology to their brainstorming over solutions, and concluded that a tractor would not only help the family to farm, it could bring in rental income. The kids went home, raised $10,000, bought a tractor for the family, and arranged for members of the family to be trained in its operation. Now, says Paradis, the family is making money from a sustainable business, and the students have notched a business success. “A lot of these kids have gone on to get into major universities,” Paradis says. “This (successful project) figures highly in their future endeavors.”

Learning lean also equips young people for the high-stakes competition that characterizes today’s business environment – “this sort of menacing notion that someone will eclipse you if you’re not on your game,” Paradis believes. “You’ve got to be intellectually and emotionally resilient, because you’re going to get knocked down constantly.”

Robert Taylor, an economics teacher at a Connecticut private school, built an entrepreneurship course around lean methodology after attending Blank’s workshop last summer. “It was one of the most popular classes in the school,” Taylor says. “There’s lots of team-based projects, lots of presentations, lots of work outside the classroom. The sooner you can expose kids to entrepreneurship the better. They don’t know it yet, but many of them will want to be entrepreneurs once they start working.”


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