Monday, April 02, 2012

High Tech Incubators for (Black) Students

The "black" in the title of this note may prove to be irrelevant to its content, but is central to its purpose. On the one hand, academia's steady production of non-black, high-tech superstars provides ample evidence that American colleges and universities somehow manage to stimulate non-black students to become successful high-tech entrepreneurs:
By contrast, the lack of comparably successful black entrepreneurs suggests that American colleges and universities aren't providing comparable stimulation for their black students. So the Howard-Apps-Dev incubator at Howard University and similar initiatives at other institutions are breaking new ground that will probably require new, possibly radically new approaches. Given that creativity respects no racial boundaries, academic innovations that make it more likely for black students to achieve success as entrepreneurs will probably provide similar benefits for non-black students.

Blending Incompatible Frameworks
It seems to me that a high-tech incubator for students (HTI-S) must something like a platypus, a contradictory creature that National Geographic describes as follows:
"Duck-billed platypuses can't be real, can they? This small, amphibious mammal has a tail like a beaver, a body like an otter, walks like a reptile, has webbed feet and a beak like a bird, and it lays eggs!"
An HTI-S will have to be a cross between an academic interdisciplinary research program and a commercial business incubator, inheriting incompatible characteristics from both parents. Given the current focus of Howard's incubator on apps for mobile platforms, my comments will focus on this particular kind of incubator:
  • Expertise vs. Teaching Skills
    -- When students become members of academic research teams, these teams are usually headed by faculty because faculty usually have more relevant expertise than their students. But where mobile apps are involved, this may be a dubious assumption, especially for apps directed at the young adult market wherein students may have keener insights than faculty who are twenty or more years older.

    -- The mentors with the most demonstrable expertise in such markets are likely to be the most successful developers of mobile apps, i.e., the entrepreneur/founders of profitable start-up operations. But their greater understanding of what it takes to succeed doesn't guarantee that they will know how to teach what they know. In other words, faculty have two kinds of expertise, subject matter and teaching; whereas entrepreneurs may only know what they know.

    -- One way to address this mismatch might be to persuade successful entrepreneurs to become "adjunct" members of the incubator staff. These role models could inspire the students and tell them what they need to know; then the participating faculty could teach the students the specific skills that the entrepreneurs recommended that they learn... :-)

    -- An equally important benefit that will come from involving successful entrepreneur/founders in a HTI-S will be their memberships in the networks of other high tech companies, marketing firms, and venture capital operations and the exposure to these networks these successful adjuncts can give to the students enrolled in courses and projects sponsored by an HTI-S at a college or university.

  • Tests vs. Downloads
    How should we measure a student's success in an incubator? Clearly, the ultimate metrics should be market indicators, e.g., the number of times an app is downloaded by new users from online markets (or from a local Website hosted by the incubator) in the first few weeks after it's posted, the dollars earned in the first few weeks, etc. However, it also seems reasonable that the faculty who are supporting the students' efforts should regard market metrics as summative indicators that are invoked upon an app's completion; but while the apps is under development, while the students are learning the component skills required to produce successful apps, their mastery of these skills should be measured by faculty grades on earlier drafts as formative measures that would guide the student's learning efforts.

  • Earning a Grade vs. Launching a Business
    The two sides of this issue are especially incompatible, so I'm going to take two shots at this one; and being a to-the-bone-Libra, I will achieve a balanced perspective by offering strong support both sides ... :-)

    First, the traditional perspective ==> colleges and universities are academic institutions that teach their students the knowledge and skills they will need to achieve success in their personal and professional lives after they graduate. Students who develop apps with the support and encouragement of an HTI-S should be expected to learn how to produce marketable apps, but not to become entrepreneur/founders of new enterprises that produce these marketable apps for income and profit before they graduate. The higher the grades the students receive for their participation in an HTI-S, the more confident they should be that they have, indeed, acquired the knowledge and skills they sought to learn.

  • Unsuccessful Graduates vs. Successful Drop-outs
    How should we measure the success of an HTI-S? Clearly, the ultimate metrics should be market indicators, e.g., the number/percentage of the students who participate in the HTI-S who go on to become entrepreneur/founders of high-tech startups and the number/percentage who succeed. Otherwise an HTI-S will merely be running a "high-tech appreciation" program.

    But how soon should these outcomes be measured? How soon should an HTI-S encourage its students to launch their own startup companies? Entrepreneurs, by definition, are not salaried employees; they are risk takers. So an HTI-S should encourage its students to launch their own start-ups as soon as they are able to assume the risks involved ... with the understanding that  sometimes this capability may be realized before a student graduates.

    Some of the most successful non-black high tech entrepreneurs mentioned earlier in this note dropped out of undergraduate or graduate programs, e.g,  Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Jerry Yang, David Filo, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg.

    Colleges and universities have been wrestling with this dilemma for decades with regards to their star athletes, many of whom were black, who dropped out of college before graduation in order to launch careers as professionals. Would the drop-outs who went on to become the highly paid superstars of the pro leagues have been better off had they waited until they graduated?
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