Mark Lacker does everything with purpose, whether it’s to learn from something or to contribute to something. He’s the last person in the world to brag about himself, but his students and colleagues know just how much of an educating powerhouse he is. As the current Miami University Alumni Association Effective Educator of the Year in the #8 entrepreneurship program of public universities, we decided to sit down with Mark to understand what it takes to be so successful in educating young entrepreneurs, and what Bigcos can learn from him.
We’re impressed with your leadership creating opportunities for students to learn and get immersed in entrepreneurship. How did you get started, and what drives your passion?
I was running a small business in Cincinnati and Miami’s entrepreneurship program contacted me to ask if I’d like to have some interns. Those interns turned out to be unbelievably great, and along the way I figured out that these students were really bright and really quick. After that, I did a lot of guest speaking, which led to teaching one class a semester, and found out that I loved it; what I loved most were the students and their possibilities.
As for passion, there are two drivers. The first is how fantastic our team is. I’ve been through enough business experiences and teams to know that being on a great team in which everyone is aligned, collegial, and committed to purpose and each other happens far too rarely–and we have that in the Miami Entrepreneurship program. But when it’s all said and done, you teach because it’s about the students.
About 10 years ago I read a book by Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation, and I did some research around it. The characteristics of The Greatest Generation–which were the WWII Vets going into the workplace in the 1950s–were described with the same terms and phrases that people in the workforce today use with Millennials. At the heart of it, Millennials want to do more, quickly; they want to do things that make meaning now. So, it’s my challenge to figure out how to prepare a student to go make meaning, make a difference, and be successful–whether it’s in a Bigco, a nonprofit, or a funded startup. That’s what drives me.
Some people argue that entrepreneurship can’t be taught. What do you say to that?
Our definition of entrepreneurship at Miami is that it’s a way of thinking and acting, and understanding entrepreneurship means you have to understand the contexts in which entrepreneurial thinking and acting take place. For instance, McKinsey did a world-wide study a couple years ago and found that 80% of Chief Strategy Officers of large companies believed their business model was at risk. So Bigcos need entrepreneurial thinking and acting–more creative minds, more entrepreneurial minds, more innovative minds, people that can see opportunities where others don’t. They need people that not only find those opportunities, but know what to do to test, prove, build, and deploy solutions in a way that improves speed and reduces risk. Those processes and opportunity-recognition skills can absolutely be taught. High-growth companies and startups are looking for people that can tolerate ambiguity, learn things on the fly, and are excellent at collaboration–all things that can be taught.
What is the most challenging part of teaching entrepreneurship?
A student is going to take 5-6 courses, participate in student and social organizations, hang out with friends, and may even have a job. In that entire mix of things, the biggest challenge isn’t the material–it’s getting mindshare. My biggest challenge is to show my students why the things we’re doing will matter to them. If I can’t do that, my students won’t care. But if I can, then the challenge becomes to deliver relevant growing experiences that lead to a better understanding of my students’ sense of self and more doors opened.
What are the key principles you center on while teaching entrepreneurship?
One is embodied by John Altman, the man who started Miami University’s Entrepreneurship program. He told me years ago, “When I walk into the classroom, I consider myself first among equals.” Everybody in the room is equal, and as the first among equals, my job is to curate the course. Once I’m in the room though, we’re on all the same plane. In addition to that, I say the same thing on the first day of every course, “I’m not here to teach you. I’m here to help you learn.” My students have a responsibility in their learning; it’s up to them to come prepared already having read through the material, and it’s my job to help them make better sense of it.
The last thing students want to do is spend time memorizing something only to regurgitate it back out–it’s a waste of time. Teachers are no longer the oracle of information when you can learn everything you need to know at the tips of your fingers. It’s my job to help students put it in context and apply it. This allows for my students to thrive in Bigcos who are desperate for new and entrepreneurial thinking, but also in startups that don’t have a training program. Either way, new employees are thrown right in, so I structure my classes accordingly. While these are some of my principles, they all boil down to my honest belief that this is the greatest generation; they’re going to change the world for all the right reasons.
How has Miami University embraced the entrepreneurial culture?
When asked this question, he turned it over to one of our interns, a current Miami University Entrepreneurship student, who said:
I would rather spend my time in the entrepreneurship department than I would my major’s department. When asked, I also say I’m studying entrepreneurship, and then I say I’m studying marketing because I fit into the culture of our program more than anywhere else. Everyone has the growth mindset, and everyone’s so supportive of each other. I can go to just about anyone in the program for feedback, and they’ll spend as much time as I need with them. You can’t find that anywhere else. It’s also about what we’re learning. I feel that whatever job I have, I can apply what I’m learning. Yes, the entrepreneurship classes I take are much harder than some of my other classes, but I’d rather take them knowing that I’m actually going to use what I learn.
Mark agreed, and built onto it, saying:
The entire team is aligned. We all believe in the students. We’re all current on what we’re teaching. We all push the students to do their work. I don’t know of any other department that acts so in concert and is so fresh with its teachings.
How do you think entrepreneurship is changing the business landscape?
Every discipline has recognized the need to be more entrepreneurial–leaner, quicker, more impactful, shedding the old-school, doing more with less. What we’re doing at Miami matters to any job, any organization, any size, in any sector. The fact that it’s now widely recognized is gratifying, but it’s also a challenge for us to deliver so our students are ready for the challenges, whether it’s in gerontology or primary education. It’s not all about starting a business; it’s about affecting the business.
How does entrepreneurship relate to the corporate world? How should Bigcos be thinking about leveraging it?
“We need to be more ____” Fill in the blank with Lean, Agile or Innovative and you have the mantra of many Bigcos. Underpinning this is a fear of being disrupted and a need to act more swiftly, reduce risk and explore more opportunities. Lean Startup methods provide the playbook to do just that. By emphasizing iterative testing, empirical evidence, and fragmenting large R&D builds into smaller chunks of deliverable progress.
How do you incorporate lean innovation principles and methodologies into your teaching? What about your own work?
We use some of the same materials that highly-regarded companies use in teaching innovation to Bigcos. We also use the same iterative lean process that has been widely distributed and adopted by startups. So, if you think of Lean Startup and Business Model Generation as fundamental processes, we teach them. We teach them in our 200-level classes and then apply them in our 400-level classes and internship programs. Our students are learning the same things–tools, processes, and resources–that a Fortune 500 company teaches its employees. Our curriculum is all externally driven.
At the higher-ed level, you can’t sit in an office and think about what you ought to be teaching to entrepreneurial students; you have to go ask entrepreneurial organizations what they’re teaching and learning. When I go to these CEOs and upper-management personnel at high-growth companies, I ask two questions: 1) “What would make you salivate over one of our students on graduation day?” In other words: How do they need to think? How do they need to act? What skills and experiences do they need? What do they need to be able to do so that you would not just interview them, but that you would actually fight to have them on your team? 2) I also ask how they organize and structure, and especially what pieces of software and training they use; then I go research it. After I gather all this information, I look at what’s most relevant to the 18-22 cohort, and determine the most appropriate structure for the classroom.