Entrepreneurship definitely isn’t new to North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Situated in the state’s Piedmont region and directly between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill — and each city’s respective school in North Carolina State, Duke, and the University of North Carolina — the region has long been a hotspot for innovation. But one school, in particular, has been leading the way, says Ted Zoller, director of The Entrepreneurship Center at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
“When you look at the community here in the research park, UNC is the dominant player,” Zoller says on a phone call with Poets&Quants. “Almost all of the big-scale companies that have exited were founded by UNC entrepreneurs. I’m not disparaging my friends at Duke or NC State, but we clearly are the leader.”
Zoller would know. He’s been involved with the entrepreneurship community at UNC for about two decades and has watched — and helped — the community grow and develop. Launched in 1998, The Entrepreneurship Center is one of the oldest and most established in the country. “We’ve been in the pioneering role of establishing entrepreneurship as a field,” Zoller points out.
A ‘FUNDAMENTAL RESTRUCTURING OF OUR ECONOMY’
Fast-forward two decades and Zoller and others in the UNC community believe the university and region have the infrastructure and programming in place to take another step forward. Nestled within one of the largest research parks in the world, Zoller says the strength of Kenan-Flagler’s entrepreneurship ecosystem begins there.
“What makes a great entrepreneurship ecosystem is building up the social capital and the leadership that can extract these innovations and turn them into businesses,” Zoller says. “Right now in Research Triangle, that culture is completely embedded. It’s just in the water. We’re just like Austin.”
Highlighting one of those movements is the Blackstone Entrepreneurship Network which has headquarters in the Triangle as well as Boulder, Colorado. Launched about eight years ago, the goal is to provide enough support and resources to boost the entrepreneurial community in Research Triangle as a means to turbocharge the local economy. Zoller says the commitment of the Network has helped double the amount of venture capital and private equity in the region.
“Entrepreneurship is updating capitalism,” Zoller says like someone would say the sky is blue.
“We’re going through a fundamental restructuring of our economy,” he continues. “The models that were set up that were much more distributive models after the war are breaking down. We’re now seeing most innovation occurring in smaller enterprises. We’re hearing from our corporate partners that they value an adaptable leader over any other skill set. Therefore, entrepreneurship is a core element of MBA education.”
LAUNCH CHAPEL HILL HIGHLIGHTS LOCAL STARTUP COMMUNITY
Honing in on Chapel Hill, specifically, one of the bigger developments has been the creation of Launch Chapel Hill. Created in 2013, Launch Chapel Hill runs a program connecting startups to mentors and capital while providing a coworking space for work. “We’re bringing in entrepreneurs off the street to mix with our students,” Zoller says. “It’s a way to stay up to speed with what the street is learning in entrepreneurship.
“We have found out that when we connect our students with serial entrepreneurs, they have a better path than if they would’ve just started by themselves on the street. By being connected to these domain experts, they’re being drawn into the marketplace.”
Run as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the program is currently in its 12th cohort of startups and recently included the first student-only cohort. Student teams get $5,000 in support to work on startups during the summer. “It is all about trying to fuel this entrepreneurial ecosystem and connect the university resources to city resources and to encourage the talent to stay here and continue to develop,” says Vickie Gibbs, the Executive Director of The Entrepreneurship Center at Kenan-Flagler.
CREATING THE ‘INTRAPRENEUR’
In terms of the university and the MBA experience at Kenan-Flagler, Zoller says the school has created a “learn, launch, lead” curricular and co-curricular program for students interested in entrepreneurship. Learn includes the curriculum, launch is the hands-on and experiential experience, and leading includes mentorship and apprenticeship opportunities.
As for curriculum, Zoller says the school approaches entrepreneurship by teaching in categories of “founder, funder, and growth executives” or “intrapreneurs.” The distinction is something Zoller believes sets Kenan-Flagler apart from other business schools. “Where a lot of schools position themselves as a tech startup or startup-founder program, ours actually focused on founders, funders, and growth executives,” Zoller says. “That’s a new science for many of the schools that are building out entrepreneurship programs.”
Gibbs says that recruiters are beginning to demand their recent hires have the ability to innovate within large and established job roles and functions. “Even recruiters that come from some of our top firms are looking for resilience and leadership and critical thinking and creativity,” she says. “Those are all things we teach as part of the entrepreneurial process.”
‘ENTREPRENEURSHIP IS HERE TO STAY. IT’S NOT A FAD.’
As for the “launch” piece, besides Launch Chapel Hill, MBAs can also tap into the Blue Innovation Community, which is an “innovation-themed learning program” that gives MBAs access to a designer space for product and service creation. And highlighting the “lead” component is the Adams Apprenticeship and ELab. A 12-month program for first-year graduate students and juniors at the undergraduate school, the Adams Apprenticeship is a highly competitive opportunity for students to tap into the full smorgasbord of entrepreneurial opportunities at UNC.
“I don’t think anyone can compete with our infrastructure. We’ve set up a seamless model to incubate while you’re in school,” Zoller boasts.
Investing in that infrastructure is looking towards the future of the economy, how business is done, and the future of training business leaders and innovators.
“Entrepreneurship is here to stay. It’s not a fad,” Zoller says. “This is a fundamental reflection of how the economy is changing. And the business leader of the future is somebody who has not only an expertise in technical skills and has the ability to manage large scale, but is also highly-adaptable as the market changes. And can respond and act.”
‘BUILDING THE MARATHON RUNNER, NOT THE SPRINTER’
Zoller believes we’ve only seen “about 10%” of how the Web is going to impact business and the global economy. And that global economy is only going to be more tied together moving forward, Zoller says.
“We’re all having these questions of are we in a country, or are we part of the human race? And I think the next generation — the Gen Z’s — from what I’m seeing, they don’t see themselves as Americans or Canadians or Russians, or what have you,” Zoller says. “They see themselves as human beings. And they have as many friends overseas as they do in their own neighborhoods. Globalism is here to stay. It’s a permanent thing.”
Futuristic thinking is something Zoller says the school has to adopt to continue to evolve, grow, and stay relevant in the world of entrepreneurship education.
“A lot of schools look at entrepreneurship like a formula or cookbook. And we can’t afford to do that at Carolina,” he says. “Carolina wants to be on the cutting edge, so we look at including entrepreneurship in all of the domains that focus on improving the human condition in the future. We’re doubling down in healthcare. We’re doubling down in AI. We’re doubling down in computations and robotics.
“We’re really focused on building the marathon runner, not the sprinter.”