By Tamara Pupic
A few years shy of its centenary celebrations, the team at US-based Babson College is taking a closer look at the GCC region. Dr Kerry Murphy Healey, president of the college, tells Tamara Pupic about next year’s Babson Connect: Worldwide Summit in Dubai, and much more.
Is entrepreneurship a talent that you’re born with or is it a skill to be cultivated? Or both? It’s a debate that has been running for many a year.
Many argue that entrepreneurship cannot be learnt in a classroom as it involves making gut-based decisions to deal with the uncertainties it brings, and a set of skills that cannot be quantified and taught.
However, demand for entrepreneurship programmes and courses is on the rise, and more and more book shelves are filled with self-help business books.
Dr Kerry Murphy Healey, president of Babson College, a Massachusetts-based private business school for ‘Entrepreneurship of All Kinds,’ is convinced that entrepreneurship can be learnt and, thus, should be taught.
“Babson College graduates are rated extremely highly in terms of return on investment. It means that they are able to enter the workforce and meet the needs of their employers on the first day,” she tells StartUp during a recent visit to the UAE.
“We incorporate a number of people as adjunct professors into our curriculum who have been successful entrepreneurs and successful business people. So the expertise they are receiving in the classroom is very current.
“Business is moving very fast, trends in entrepreneurship are moving very fast, and if you have a professor who hasn’t been out in the field practising being a business person in the last year or so, you probably are getting dated information.
“So we make sure that all of our professors of entrepreneurship have actually run a company, they know problems that are encountered from a firsthand standpoint. I think that that helps them keep what they teach in the classroom grounded in that experience that they have.”
Since 1919, the college has offered bachelor’s degrees in business administration, and master’s degrees in business administration, accounting, entrepreneurial leadership, and management.
In addition, nearly 55 entrepreneurship-related undergraduate courses currently on offer differentiate this college from many other business schools. However, how the courses are taught is what has earned it the title of “Entrepreneur’s College.”
“The other thing that we do is that we have all of our students start and run a company during their first year,” Dr Murphy Healey explains.
“We divide them into groups, have them choose an idea for a company, give them a little bit of money to start, and make sure that they pay back that loan if they do make money. All further profits go to a charity that they pick in advance.
“So our students have the experience of not only starting and running a company, but we also ask them to close it down just as if they were going bankrupt because many companies don’t succeed. We want our students to have an experience of a full cycle of running a company during their first year.
“After that they won’t be scared of running a company and having that experience of failure. Many times, especially here in the Middle East, there is a lot of anxiety around the possibility of failure when you start a new enterprise.
“We make sure that our students view failure as part of the learning process and not something that you label as an end, but something that you label as an indication that you need to assess what you’ve learnt, pivot and take a new direction.”
As is already evident within its curriculum, Babson College takes an innovative approach to things others consider intangible. The same stands for failure.
In 1999, the college and the London Business School initiated the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), a study on entrepreneurship which analyses the behaviour of individuals with respect to starting and managing a business.
“One of the questions they always ask is whether an entrepreneur’s willingness to start a new venture is limited by the fear of failure,” Dr Murphy Healey says. “Here, in this region, I would say that on average about 50 percent of the people who respond to this say that they are concerned about it, that it is a limiting factor.
“And it’s not unique to the Middle East, you see this in every region of the world. Young women are particularly concerned with the impact of failure on their lives.
“If you learn from failure, if you build on it, there’s nothing to be ashamed of and what matters is how often things work out and not how often things have not worked out.
“It’s more realistic. People always wanted to create myths around themselves in the past.
“Successful people have tried to create this myth either that it was easy or that it was a straight path. And virtually no one has had a straight path to success and I’m sure wisdom is greatly increased by the detours that are created by hardship and failure.
“I always emphasise that I’ve actually failed more than I’ve succeeded in my life.”
The motive to create a positive social change has marked her nearly three-decade-long career in academia, government, and as a humanitarian both in the US and overseas.
Whether serving as the 70th lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, or helping re-establish the rule of law in Afghanistan, or leading philanthropic initiatives to combat domestic violence and child homelessness, or hosting Shining City, a television series to showcase scientific and social innovation, all were sparked from the same inner urge to better the society around her, she says.
Being at the helm of Babson College, she says, proved to be a perfect melding point for all her previous experiences.
Discussing the tech start-up space, Dr Murphy Healey explains that, despite it being just a few decades old, women face long-standing challenges.
She says: “One of those concerns is that many accelerators have a very male culture and that they don’t feel comfortable either participating or even asking for the help that they need there.”
Babson College has addressed this issue by initiating The Women Innovating Now (WIN), a year-long residency programme for women entrepreneurs to accelerate their entrepreneurial path from ideation to launch.
“The WIN labs have found that the women coming out of there are more likely to be able to win entrepreneurial contests and to get a higher level of funding and to pay themselves more appropriately,” she says.
“One of the things that has been fascinating is that we’ve been finding in recent research is that women entrepreneurs still pay themselves less than male entrepreneurs in similar situations.
“So we need to educate them that they should pay themselves properly for the jobs that they are doing even in the context of their own company.”
From 27 students enrolled in 1919, the number of the college’s prospective students has been rising. More than 2,100 undergraduate and 900 graduate students attended Babson in the 2014–2015 academic year.
They represent more than 80 countries, and Dr Murphy Healey states that they have alumni in 114 countries. Among them are 96 Babson alumni from 16 Middle Eastern countries, while 14 students from the UAE are currently enrolled at Babson.
To keep them current with the world’s fast-changing business trends and connected to the home campus, Babson College organises an international conference in a different part of the world each year.
Following the inaugural Babson Connect: Worldwide in Cartagena, Colombia, which was held in April 2015, the next conference –Babson Connect: Worldwide Summit – will be held in Dubai in March 2016.
They promise to present engaging keynote speakers and panels discussing all entrepreneurship-related topics from the region and beyond.
When asked for her opinion on the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, Dr Murphy Healey says: “One of the things that is very unique about the Middle East is the recognition not only on the part of people generally, but on the parts of government that entrepreneurship is a critical part of the future in terms of creating job opportunities and mobility for young people.
“I’ve been very positively impressed with the statements that I’ve heard both from the leadership here in the UAE and also in Saudi Arabia around the importance of entrepreneurship to the future of the nations.
“This is not something that every country recognises, and although the entrepreneurial spirit is present in virtually all countries in the people, it’s often discouraged either deliberately or inadvertently by government policies.
“Here in the UAE you can see that the government is trying to be extremely innovative about how to get out of the way of entrepreneurs and also to positively enable them.“
Further to commitment to entrepreneurship, Babson College values diversity highly. Dr Murphy Healey points out that students need help on how to take advantage and benefit from it.
“I always ask my students what are the silliest questions you get asked about your country. What are the cultural misunderstandings that you have come up since you came on campus?
“And when I ask them how they feel about it, some people find it amusing and some people are deeply hurt by these misunderstandings. But all of them have decided, and I asked them to pledge to me, to take these opportunities as teaching moments so that they would have patience.
“So there is an extra step. It’s fine to get different people in the room but then you have to get to know each other and that’s the hard part. And with that knowledge comes respect.”
As our conversation comes to an end, we mention a few of important industry accolades. Among many she mentions the highest rankings on the list of top colleges for entrepreneurship by TIME Money Making magazine.
“It is an overall assessment that focuses not only academic excellence, but also on outcome and the value of education that was received,” she says. “But that isn’t something that rankings in the past have looked at – how do students do when they leave college.
“We’ve always focused on outcomes, we want our students to be very successful in their lives so we are proud of that.”