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July 17, 2013

Big ideas: Stanford program teaches innovators business and leadership skills

Participants in Stanford Ignite at the Graduate School of Business learn how to move their innovative ideas forward. Offered since 2011, the program is expanding this year to Paris and Bangalore, and next year to Beijing.

By Brooke Donald

Sarah Russell-Smith talks about her prototype with a fellow Stanford Ignite participant. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

In a recent workshop at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, groups of students clustered around tables littered with Post-It notes, pencils, iPhones, pieces of string, cuts of cardboard and the occasional screwdriver.

As they tinkered, they talked.

Do you like your bathroom? Is your toothbrush easily within reach? Do you use mouthwash? Is it important to have your toothpaste and toothbrush on the counter, or would you rather have them hidden away?

The assignment was to create a better oral hygiene experience. The students were charged with interviewing their classmates, creating a prototype and presenting it to the class.

The workshop in design thinking was part of a program at Stanford's Graduate School of Business called Stanford Ignite, which teaches core management skills and entrepreneurship to technical professionals and graduate students focused on subjects other than business.

The part-time certificate program was introduced in 2011 at Stanford, and is now expanding to several innovation hubs around the globe. Next month, it will start in Bangalore, and in the fall, it will be offered in Paris. There are plans for another program in Beijing next year.

The goal is to provide participants with fundamental business skills such as accounting, finance, marketing, strategy and operations and functional skills such as leadership, negotiation, teamwork and communications.

Practical approach

The Graduate School of Business started the program as another way to support the practical application of innovative ideas. The first summer program was for Stanford graduate students in the sciences and medicine who had great ideas but no business know-how to help bring their innovations to market.

Stanford faculty members lead Ignite instruction, and the experience is hands-on and immersive – intended to replicate what working professionals or graduate students at Stanford would get.

Investors, executives, legal experts and other guests lecture and mentor the participants.

"It's demanding and challenging," said Yossi Feinberg, Ignite's faculty director. "The gap between what they know coming in and what they leave with is huge. It's just incredible to see the transformation."

The non-degree program lasts nine weeks and meets in the evenings and weekends, depending on the location. There have been about 60-70 students at a time in each program. A four-week, full-time program is also offered at Stanford in the summer for Stanford-affiliated participants.

While the students do not have business training, they are interested in starting a venture, growing an existing one, or leading and consulting. The projects pursued during the educational program are not expected to be developed to the point of securing funding.

"We're teaching them all the skills they need," Feinberg said. "But it's not only about catching the big fish. Great if they do, but they simply – or not so simply – need to first learn to fish."

Some students have gone on to create their own businesses. Among the ventures founded by Stanford Ignite participants are DailyDeal, Lytro, Parallel Earth, Piqora and Bell Biosystems.

"The program serves as a nice reality check," Feinberg said. "They sometimes come in with ideas they think will work but they just don't, once we put them to the test."

Problem solvers

Ignite alumnus Raj Lal, a Silicon Valley software engineer, said the program changed his perspective about starting a business.

"There's a lot more to it than having a great idea, making an app, selling it and getting rich," he said. "Sure, that works for some people, obviously, and it becomes a big story and everyone thinks that's the formula for success. But it's not reality for most people, not for 99 percent of the people."

Lal said the program taught him the importance of teamwork and about filling a void. "You start with a problem that you're trying to solve," he said. "Basically, you find out what the customer wants, then build according to that. Don't build something, then try to find customers."

Lal and fellow Ignite alumni Cynthia Lee and Wendy Soon were inspired during the program to get together to create their own joint venture. The trio created a start-up called Vorkspace, a platform to help people who work in different locations to communicate and work more effectively as a team.

Soon said she entered the program wanting business skills but not necessarily to start her own venture.

"I thought if I had ideas, someone else would eventually make the product. I'm not capable of doing that," she said. "But the course gave me encouragement and motivation."

She said the program also gave her the resources and confidence she needed to try entrepreneurship, and provided connections to like-minded people. She, Lal and Lee continue to meet with Ignite alumni at monthly networking events.

"The program was really inspiring," said Lee, who received a master's degree in electrical engineering from Stanford. "I learned so much I can't believe it was only nine weeks. It felt like nine months."

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Contact

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, brooke.donald@stanford.edu

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