Berkeley Method Gets Students Thinking Like Entrepreneurs

It was a stressor of an assignment for some 400 students at the European Innovation Academy (EIA) in Cascais, Portugal: Form diverse teams of five and, in just 15 days, create startups to pitch to a panel of investors, in hopes of launching the next Instagram or Airbnb. A few students, blanching in the face the world’s largest extreme entrepreneurship program, packed for home.

The clock began ticking for the rest, and the trendy Estoril Congress Center grew chaotic. At the Idea Expo, college students from 70 nations had three hours to shop, speed dating-style, for teammates and real-world problems to solve.

“Fifteen days is enough time to build a startup from scratch,” said Anni Sinijarv, the non-profit EIA’s Estonian CEO and co-founder, confidently observing the drama. “The top 10 teams wind up on the big stage and pitch to venture capitalists who sometimes want to invest right away. Americans compare it to ‘Shark Tank,’ only focused on students.”

During the arduous, July 14 to Aug. 2 event, many of the 80 teams — each with a chief executive, business, marketing, technology and design officer — split up and rearranged several times in pursuit of the right team chemistry. Students’ startup ideas also changed like the wind.

To help, 50 experts in marketing, intellectual property, hardware, software, pitching and design — half of them from Silicon Valley — were flown in as mentors. So were 34 lecturers, including corporate leaders from Fiat Chrysler, Google and Amazon. EIA online tools — an Extreme Acceleration Playbookand even a chatbot dog named Growby — kept students organized.

But UC Berkeley’s 56 participants arrived with an edge — their own method for the madness. It would help them wind up on five of the top 10 teams in the EIA Pitching Carousel and on three more teams awarded provisional patents and trademarks.

At a Berkeley-only leadership camp held 200 miles away in Porto just beforehand, they’d learned the Berkeley Method of Entrepreneurship. A game-based, inductive learning approach developed and launched at Berkeley in 2012 — and taught worldwide today — it helps individuals develop the mindset and behaviors of a successful entrepreneurial leader.

According to new findings by a Canadian research team that studied the Berkeley boot campers in Porto, they made substantial gains in skills vital to entrepreneurial success — creativity, leadership and teamwork — in just one week.

Such gain required pain. More like a boot camp, the leadership week “is designed to feel really uncomfortable,” admits Ken Singer, managing director of the UC Berkeley College of Engineering’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (SCET) and co-inventor of the Berkeley Method. “But it forces students to look for the information and tools they need to build a company and a team.”

“I’m OK with being uncomfortable, because of what I’m learning,” said Berkeley participant Britney Cooper in Porto. “I’m struggling, and it’s the best thing ever.”

Method for a mindset

The Berkeley Method has radical roots dating back to 2005, when Ikhlaq Sidhu was recruited to Berkeley’s faculty to launch what’s known today as SCET. At the time, Berkeley Engineering was known for training hard-core engineers, not entrepreneurs, and had no formal entrepreneurship courses.

Then-Dean Richard Newton, both an engineer and entrepreneur, “believed engineers shouldn’t be so narrow; they shouldn’t be reduced to a calculator,” says Sidhu, an industry veteran who’d previously founded the Technology Entrepreneur Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “They need to learn more skills to change the world — like how to communicate well, work well in teams, show initiative, be adaptable.”

To give students a business perspective, he invited Silicon Valley CEOs who’d founded companies including Netscape, Google, Yahoo!, Cloudera and Wired to be guest lecturers. But it was the CEOs themselves, not the lectures, that intrigued Sidhu and his students.

“They had behaviors, a mindset, ways of seeing the world,” explains Sidhu, SCET’s chief scientist and Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (IEOR) Emerging Area Professor. “I started to believe these were the most important things, more important than logic and skill. They were dynamic and clever, and you could see why their companies grew.”

Meanwhile, Singer, a serial entrepreneur hired in 2012 to manage and grow SCET, was creating popular entrepreneurship and technology classes, like the competition-based Challenge Labs that pair interdisciplinary student teams with industry clients. The Berkeley alumnus also was sharing the soft skills he’d mastered — leading, listening, collaborating, hiring the right people and rebounding from failure.

“We weren’t just teaching STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) at SCET, but introducing psychology and culture to entrepreneurship — and it was unique to Berkeley,” says SInger. “We were building something different, as a public university, that was working for our population.”

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