Innovation and the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Last week I had another terrific visit with alumni, parents, and friends of the College in the San Francisco area. We hosted our most recent Dialogue Tour event at the beautiful, historic Westin St. Francis Hotel on Union Square where 125 people joined us for the evening. During my trip, I was also able to meet in smaller settings and shared meals and of course, stimulating conversation. In each venue, innovation and entrepreneurship seemed to be on the minds of our friends in Northern California.  Many find our Swarthmore education well suited for people involved in entrepreneurship and higher education, since both areas require an individual to be creative, passionate, driven, and innovative.

We talked about our existing extern program and how we might build upon its success. Most agreed that the program provides the perfect intersection between practical experience and academic knowledge, but some wondered how the insight gained by the extern experience is applied when students return to campus. Do they share what they have learned with fellow students? Are they able to apply the hands-on experience to their coursework? The same questions were also raised about our study abroad program and its connection to the broader curriculum and knowledge acquired on campus.

Alumni and parents were also very intrigued by the idea that the College could expand upon these “real world” experiences in a way that can positively and directly affect our students’ capacities to create, imagine and forge new entrepreneurial paths for themselves. One alum suggested the College establish a fund for “seed start-ups” for undergraduates, encouraging their innovation and imagination in tangible ways;  this would also reinforce the idea that risks are inherently a part of life and help our students see this as a good and necessary experience regardless of whether they succeed or fail. If we coupled this with a mentoring program in which we matched alumni to students, this would provide even further guidance related to “life lessons.”

Alumni are also very eager to connect directly with our students in ways that can help them with their career choices. They would like to see greater opportunities for students to reach out to alumni and share their interests, ideas, and professional passions. Alumni in turn could lend resources, provide valuable contacts, and offer mentoring when appropriate. The suggestion of a campus-wide “problem-solving” competition arose, which could be judged and facilitated by alumni.

These ideas for a fuller, richer alumni-student connection are also arising in the conversations within our strategic planning process, specifically in the alumni engagement working group and in the alumni connection conversations taking place around the country. I will present these ideas to the engagement working group and urge you to continue to send any others to the strategic planning website at www.swarthmore.edu/strategicplanning or via email at strategicplanning@swarthmore.edu