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Keyed In to Innovation: Rebecca Weeks Watson (McIntire ’01) on Entrepreneurial Thinking

We recently reached out to Watson to find out more about the many advantages of entrepreneurial thinking and how her expertise is helping M.S. in Commerce students to drive positive transformation in their lives and careers.

Rebecca Weeks Watson

The wide-ranging professional and personal experiences of McIntire alum and Adjunct Professor Rebecca Weeks Watson have made her especially suited to teach about entrepreneurial thinking.

To begin with, Watson comes to the subject matter with knowledge that has been the product of deliberately taking chances and exploring diverse, unfamiliar areas throughout her career. Her professional path began in investment banking and strategy consulting, then moved into a succession of choices resulting in a wealth of projects that have been as diverse as launching a startup in marketing software to delving into the hands-on creation of a probing video series in which she interviewed renowned CEOs.

This semester, the executive and angel investor continues her work in higher education, returning to her UVA alma mater to teach M.S. in Commerce students; she’s also an adjunct at Davidson College, where she leads a course on the Lean Startup method for the North Carolina-based school’s Jay Hurt Hub for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Here at McIntire, Watson has been teaching Keys to Entrepreneurial Thinking, a course she’s built to prepare graduate students to “be better prepared professionally and personally to turn obstacles and voids into opportunities for innovation and value creation,” she says.

Watson notes that because of the increasingly fast evolution of the business landscape—and the technology that drives and impacts it—entrepreneurial thinking is an essential skill that can help people in every sector respond to the rapid-fire changes that define our dynamic world.

And what exactly is that type of thinking?

“In simple terms, it means a unique way of looking at problems as opportunities to investigate and explore in order to determine a new solution that creates value,” she says, noting that the term is a bit misleading, as it implies a kind of mental approach to problems, when in reality it’s a function of both the mind and behaviors. “We must think and act to generate innovative solutions.”

We recently reached out to Watson to find out more about the many advantages of entrepreneurial thinking, the ways her extensive background has informed the inventive curriculum she’s put together, and how her expertise is helping M.S. in Commerce students to drive positive transformation in their lives and careers.

What are the benefits of entrepreneurial thinking?

The benefits are far reaching. Thinking entrepreneurially produces radically impactful products and services, drives economic growth, and generates outsized returns for investors. It helps to expand existing businesses and make them more adaptive. What’s more, it can improve lives and society, and promote social change.

Entrepreneurial thinkers are known for having a certain set of beliefs and thought processes, including curiosity about the world around them, a future-focused mentality, a belief in their ability to influence outcomes, a self-directed attitude, an orientation towards action when facing problems, resourcefulness, and an openness to and appreciation for feedback.

Although society tends to attribute startup success with traits the founders were born with, research shows that the entrepreneurial mindset can be acquired. With this in mind, I created the Keys to Entrepreneurial Thinking course curriculum by blending psychology (permission, risk-taking, and failure tolerance), new business fundamentals, ideation, customer discovery, and experiential learning. By learning entrepreneurial thinking skills, students will be better prepared professionally and personally to turn obstacles and voids into opportunities for innovation and value creation.

What are the most important ways that this mindset of assessing issues and tackling problems differs from other means of arriving at solutions?

It differs from critical thinking—the traditional method taught in business schools—in several ways. While critical thinking seeks to determine and implement one optimal solution to a problem, often within boundaries, entrepreneurial thinking considers and tests multiple possible solutions even way outside of what would be considered the typical “boundaries.” It also requires an external focus and ongoing experimentation.

I believe entrepreneurial thinking is important for all students to be exposed to, regardless of their major or plans after graduation. Whether they enter the workforce as a strategic consultant who seeks to develop high-impact solutions or an engineer who is tasked with bringing new products to life, using an investigative approach will unlock huge possibilities. A person doesn’t have to start a business to leverage and gain benefits from the entrepreneurial approach.

Problems to be solved exist everywhere, in every discipline, in every environment.

How has your career as a founder, startup adviser, and angel investor informed your approach to entrepreneurial thinking?

Each lens I’ve looked through has shaped my perspective into a 360-degree view of innovation.

First, I’ve learned that our mindset is as important as the set of actions we take. How we view ourselves and the world around us creates the foundation for our confidence and our ability to create meaningful change. In addition, volatility and missteps constantly challenge our ego, leading us to take setbacks personally or question our innate potential. But if we label the setbacks as learning and an expected cost of doing business, we’re encouraged to keep taking risks in order to find extraordinary solutions. Tina Seelig, a Professor at Stanford University, uses what I think is a perfect metaphor to explain the mindset innovators need to prevail: “For most successful people, the bottom is lined with rubber as opposed to concrete. When they hit bottom, they sink in for a bit and then bounce back, tapping into the energy of the impact to propel them into another opportunity.”

Second, by reflecting on several startups I helped build from day one, it’s obvious now that the earlier and more frequent we tested and adapted products, the more sustainable and dramatic growth we gained. This is why I emphasize early experimentation in my course. In essence, it’s flipping the old school way of building a business on its head: Rather than focusing internally first (writing a business plan based on assumptions and building a product until you deem it’s perfect) and subsequently trying to sell to customers, the approach I teach is based on putting customers and their problem at the forefront. What follows is designing what they need, testing and measuring, and implementing feedback.

I tell students that the question to ask themselves is not “How quickly and secretly can I build this cool new thing?” but, instead, “What exactly should I build?”

This process increases an entrepreneur’s odds of success and decreases time, money, and heartache spent to validate the business.

How are M.S. in Commerce students benefiting from your experiences?

Above all, they’re gaining a realistic picture of, and a helpful roadmap for, disruption across a variety of business settings. I’m intentional about dispelling myths and describing why most startups and corporate innovation endeavors fail because it’s important that they be able to anticipate obstacles coming their way. Students also get to hear what high-profile executives learned from both entrepreneurial wins and losses, in addition to my own, so that they understand there’s no such thing as a perfect batting average when pursuing innovation.

What do you find to be the greatest obstacles for anyone attempting to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, and how have they successfully overcome those barriers?

The biggest obstacle is young people’s hesitation to take the first step, including risk outside of the classroom. One of the key points I reiterate throughout the semester is that the more often they pursue curiosity and try new things in their personal lives, the more likely they are to push through discomfort and difficulties when (not if!) it arises in their startup journey. Think about which approach is harder: slowly building up your risk tolerance muscle week by week or going from lifting a five-pound weight to a 75-pound weight overnight. For example, in my 20s I hiked the Inca Trail with strangers, took a creative writing class at night after my day job, and networked at conferences on topics I knew little about. Uncertainty and adventure became my new normal, which I’m convinced drastically helped my career.

To help students overcome this hesitation, I put a heavy emphasis on experiential learning in the course curriculum. It’s the most challenging component because they’re not just listening to lectures and studying; they’re having to individually roll up their sleeves to pursue a startup concept—a void that they personally identified—over several weeks’ time. This process includes lots of unpredictable but rewarding scenarios, including testing a new hypothesis, talking to strangers, accepting and implementing negative feedback, and designing a prototype on a shoestring budget. As a hands-on project with no correct answer or rule book, it serves as one of the most effective and memorable methods of learning.

My hope is that students then go out into the working world and their fear of missing out on a major opportunity outweighs their fear of potential failure or embarrassment.

What aspect of teaching the Keys to Entrepreneurial Thinking course has been most rewarding for you?

While I absolutely love being back on a campus to lecture and engage in class discussions, the most rewarding part is the time having one-on-one conversations with students during office hours. Getting to know the students’ interests, motivations, and personalities and watching them mature over the course of the semester are both truly fulfilling.

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