A Rigorous Approach — from the Beginning

Murray Low and Cliff Schorer talk about Columbia’s unique approach to entrepreneurship — and the skills that are most critical for entrepreneurs today.

August 11, 2014
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Murray Low, director of entrepreneurship education at Columbia Business School, remembers when “only the bravest students” took the leap to start their own businesses. Today, he says, large numbers of students come to Columbia committed to an entrepreneurial career. Here, Low, who joined the faculty in 1990 and helped grow the School’s entrepreneurship offerings from only a few courses into a robust portfolio of classes, workshops, and extracurricular resources — with a vast network of experts in the field — and Cliff Schorer, director of the School’s Entrepreneurs in Residence program, look at Columbia’s unique approach to entrepreneurship — and at the skills that are most critical for entrepreneurs today.

What is distinctive about the School’s approach to entrepreneurship?

Murray Low: We were very early proponents of “action learning” or “learning by doing.” You can pick up a lot about entrepreneurship in the classroom, but not everything. The best way to accelerate learning is to combine classroom study with fieldwork. The best way to get students to commit to a venture is to have them work on a business that they are excited about. Our secret formula has always been one part education, one part grunt work, and one part inspiration. Perhaps more important than anything, we show the students what they themselves are capable of.

“The real secret to success is defining your own rules — and sticking to them. Don’t play someone else’s game.” —Murray Low

From a wider perspective, the biggest change in how entrepreneurship is “taught” in general is the switch from writing academic business plans to doing rigorous fieldwork that we now call “customer discovery.” We’ve been doing that from the beginning.

Cliff Schorer: During the past decade, we’ve emphasized hands-on and ongoing support for launching new ventures. In addition to our strong network of entrepreneurs in residence — mentors with diverse knowledge in many areas of business who contribute their time to support these initiatives — we launched the campus-wide IE@Columbia [Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Columbia] in 2012. This multidisciplinary program — we’ve had participants from Columbia’s medical, law, engineering, international and public affairs, and film schools — has helped broaden the footprint of entrepreneurship throughout the University.

How have student entrepreneurs changed over the years?

Low: There are more of them! In the past, students would flirt with entrepreneurship, but then take the job. Only the bravest took the leap. Today large numbers of students come to Columbia committed to an entrepreneurial career. And they continue to develop ideas until they find one that works. They know that they want to build something new.

What’s your biggest advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Low: Know what you want and define your own measures for success. If you pursue an entrepreneurial career, even if you are hugely successful, there will be times when you fall flat on your face, are filled with doubt, or feel the price has been too high. The real secret to success is defining your own rules — and sticking to them. Don’t play someone else’s game.

Schorer: The core ingredient of entrepreneurial success is to follow your passion by first doing your homework and then plunging in aggressively in pursuit of success. Never shy away from well-thought-out risk, listen carefully to employee and customer feedback, and always remain flexible — the world is spinning fast.

What skill do you think is most important for entrepreneurial success today?

Low: I think there are two: the ability to learn and the ability to work with others. The world is changing so quickly that you need to be a quick study to stay on top. And no one can do that alone; you have to be able to get the best out of others.

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