You finish up a morning run through the trails on campus scattered with picturesque trees, then take a quick shower back at the Munger graduate dorms before heading toward the Knight Management Center, with a quick pit stop to fuel up at the Arrillaga dining hall. In class, professors keep you engaged until 5 p.m.
Your day is far from done. Following classes, you meet your team for a couple of hours and begin putting your newfound knowledge into practice. For dinner, you grab a bite with your cohort and reflect on the insights from class. You retreat to your dorm room to finish up your personal assignment for the team project and then make time to call a loved one. No spare moment to organize your living area, you hop into bed and read case studies to prepare for tomorrow’s classes.
The intensity of the three-and-a-half-week Stanford Ignite program is by design, simulating the lifestyle of an entrepreneur working day and night on a startup. Professor Yossi Feinberg leads the program, providing inspiration and instruction in the classroom as well as tailored guidance to individuals in group settings.
I applied to Ignite to locate my entrepreneurial blind spots and gain a holistic understanding of building a startup. Coming from the world of finance and impact investing and driven by a passion for environmental sustainability, I sought the skills to bring cleantech innovations to market. The program went far beyond my expectations.
Professor Feinberg has put together a magnificent program that consists of two parts: classroom education, and a venture group tasked with the goal of constructing a business model. And while Ignite is taught by the Graduate School of Business, it is not designed for business school students; each Ignite student begins at the same level of entrepreneurial awareness.
Ignite offers aspiring entrepreneurs foundational knowledge that runs the gamut of core business skills at a high level. Most professors taught two classes in their area of expertise, ranging from marketing to negotiations to accounting. The passion they exuded created an exceptional academic experience. It was like sitting through a TED Talk twice a day.
That enthusiasm and the interactive teaching style of engaging with students anchored the subject matter in excitement. I was on the edge of my seat for the entire three hours of accounting principles! This emotional element of teaching enabled a better transfer and retention of knowledge than by cerebral statements alone.
Professor JD Schramm was a fan favorite due to his ability to captivate students as only a professor of communication could. His lesson revolved around entrepreneurs getting out of their own heads and into the mindset of their potential customers. It’s not about what you want to communicate, it’s about how others perceive what you are trying to communicate.
Personally, my most profound lesson came from Professor Haim Mendelson, a business model whiz with insight from decades of studying companies during the boom of Silicon Valley. He explained that many of the innovations that revolutionized the world are not simply technological innovations. Instead, in cases including Google, Airbnb, and Uber, a business model innovation was the key that unlocked the economic value and ultimately enabled the business to succeed. For aspiring entrepreneurs without technical skills, this enlightening truth about the necessity of developing a solid business model is especially motivating.
ENTREPRENEURIAL LEARNING THROUGH ACTION
Grouped in teams of six, Ignite participants work together after classes to develop a venture idea to ultimately pitch it to a panel at the culmination of the program. Many students came into the program with an idea for a new venture. Teams were encouraged to begin by having a candid conversation about our expectations of working together. Establishing culture from the get-go played a key role in our practical learning. Professor Glenn Carroll enforced this learning in his classes by unpacking the case study of Zappos, a company with a deliberately peculiar culture, which would offer people $2,000 to leave the company after being hired.
The group element of Ignite provides a blank slate to work on team dynamics in a professional setting that is rarely possible in startups due to a lack of structure and/or time. For example, our team spent an hour or two to openly discuss our working styles, what we wanted to accomplish, how to interact with each other for optimal performance, and meeting norms. Having this simple conversation in real-world business teams would proactively mitigate many hurt feelings and misperceptions that so often cause unnecessary friction.
Similar to this realization derived from our hands-on experience, Ignite provides a controlled setting to learn entrepreneurship by doing. It’s like entrepreneurship on training wheels.
THE STANFORD EXPERIENCE
The people in my cohort, roughly half of whom were master’s or Ph.D. students at Stanford, were above and beyond the norm in terms of aptitude and altruism. I expected the high level of competency, but I was taken aback by the generosity I experienced. One person offered me his gym card for the entirety of the program so I could have access to working out. Another gave me her bike to get around throughout the program.
The connections I formed with 70 people in my cohort to whom I can turn for introductions and knowledge is a significant benefit of Ignite. Above all, I’m deeply grateful to have gained a newfound enjoyment for the art and science of business. Ignite sparked my passion for building a business.
Zoheb Davar is a business development executive and co-founder of Cleantech Rising, a newsletter covering the latest clean technologies and trends.