Elaine Chen helps Tufts students learn the skills and outlook to innovate in any arena
As director of the Derby Entrepreneurship Center at Tufts, Elaine Chen leads a thriving hub for all things entrepreneurial. She oversees year-round programming that works overtime to lower barriers to being an entrepreneur, whether in the more traditional sense of leading a startup or in the broader meaning of innovating in any arena. A website offers hundreds of articles for self-directed learning, while programs include Jumbo Café workshops, alumni networking events, the $100k New Ventures Competition, and the summer Tufts Venture Accelerator program for students, recent alumni, and Tufts community members.
The Center “teaches our students how to bring their knowledge and curiosity together to take that first step toward making change related to what they are passionate about,” said Chen, who teaches innovation and entrepreneurship as the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship.
Chen joined Tufts in fall 2020 from MIT, where she was senior lecturer and entrepreneur-In-residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. An MIT graduate with two degrees in mechanical engineering, she began her career in tech startups, where her innovation skills led to leadership roles in engineering and product management at the VP level at startups such as Rethink Robotics, Zeo, Zeemote, and SensAble Technologies. She brought numerous hardware and software products to market (she holds 22 patents) and is the author of Bringing a Hardware Product to Market: Navigating the Wild Ride from Concept to Mass Production.
Tufts Now recently caught up with Chen to talk about what it means to be an entrepreneur today and how Tufts is helping students develop the skills and mindset to lead change.
Tufts Now: It seems like 2021 was a pivotal year for the center: It has a new name, thanks to a generous gift from a former director, and also a new home in Joyce Cummings Center. Does this signal a new era of entrepreneurship at Tufts?
Elaine Chen: This is an exciting time. Our identity is more prominent, our location closer to the university’s hub, and our aspirations have grown. Our ambition for the Center is to redefine the word entrepreneurship on and off-campus and make it so everybody feels like the entrepreneurial way of working is accessible to them.
I want to offer a touchpoint, or some sort of experience in entrepreneurship education, to anyone who wants it. In summer 2022, we will reach out to high school students; we’re launching a pre-college program with the idea that we can broaden our regional impact. We also plan to reach out to more graduate students enrolled in residential programs. We want to keep serving our alumni and stay in touch with them throughout their careers. Forty years from now, I want them to come back to Tufts and share their stories!
Our ambition is simple: No matter what your needs are, what your interests are, and what time zone you're in, we are here to support you.
How has the pandemic shifted the focus of the entrepreneurship world? Does it bring up new challenges, new opportunities?
Absolutely! The pandemic showcases the importance of having an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset. It highlights the need to be quick on your feet and adapt to rapidly changing conditions. Just as you think things are returning to normal, you get thrown a curveball. Now, if you have an entrepreneurial way of looking at the world, that's just another day. You just have to find a way to move forward on a daily basis.
Over the past year and a half, we have seen a lot of new companies. Anybody who ventured into at-home fitness did really well. I know somebody who was looking into the difficulty for people getting PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans, and then they just started a business to help people get PPP loans.
I think that the crisis has reframed not only how we think about business but how we do business. If you are entrepreneurial, you can find an opportunity to bring solutions where others might see only frustration and chaos.
What's your advice to the would-be entrepreneur in this environment?
The pandemic can be very unsettling. A lot of people are probably feeling really stressed. We see that in a classroom; we see that in conversation with students.
My message to them is: You got this. You can figure out a way forward. Don't be afraid.
There’s a quote from [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau, from the World Economic Forum several years ago, that I like. He said, “The pace of change has never been this fast, but it will never be this slow again.” It's just going to keep moving, and that's a good thing; that's exciting. Aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs ought to embrace the idea that they can figure it out and to believe in themselves.
How do you define entrepreneurship?
When most people think about the entrepreneur, they think about someone like Elon Musk [CEO of Tesla and SpaceX] and they say, well, that's not me. It's not relevant to me. And when they think about entrepreneurship, they think about startups. But that’s a very narrow and overly limiting definition of the word entrepreneur and the word entrepreneurship.
To me, entrepreneurship is so much more. Entrepreneurship is about a way of thinking and way of working; it’s a combination of mindset and skillset.
On the mindset side, that’s innate in everyone. Everybody knows how to learn. It’s the belief that you can figure things out along the way; you can iterate until you get to the right solution. It means you’re not overthinking things, not getting into analysis paralysis, not ending up thinking you can concoct the perfect plan. That’s not how the world works.
On the skillset side, you need to know how to do primary market research and secondary market research. You need to know how to run a digital marketing campaign and organize a sales force. You need to know how to calculate your unit economics. These are teachable skills. And once they’re combined with the right mindset, you’re on your way toward being entrepreneurial.
Our job as educators is to make that learning of mindset and skillset accessible. We can teach students how to iterate through the entrepreneurial process, and if they don’t feel the mindset at first, they learn it. They can learn how to be flexible and adaptable.
On that note of teaching, the Center’s undergraduate program today attracts more than 700 students and the entrepreneurship minor is one of the top choices for undergraduates. Recently you also created an entrepreneurship for social impact minor with Tisch College. What is your sense of what students want from entrepreneurial studies?
It’s always exciting to be in a classroom with them. I teach Entrepreneurship 101, and right now my student demographic mix is 70% liberal arts, 20% from the School of Engineering, and then a combination of students from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and other schools.
What I observe is that Tufts students have a lot of hunger for making change. They say: I want to make a difference. They care about sustainability, about reducing food waste, about reducing clothing waste. They care about racial injustice, diversity, and civic discourse.
What I hear most is: How do I start? It can seem overwhelming. But if you are given the mindset and the skillset, you can think about what you can understand, where you have the ability, at your level, to make a difference. Everybody has the agency to make small, medium, or big changes.
A lot of the innovation and entrepreneurship content that we offer teaches our students how to bring their knowledge and curiosity together to take that first step toward making change related to things that they are passionate about. They don't have to have an idea of where to start; we give them multiple different ways to explore what entrepreneurship means to them and discover that they can indeed have an impact.
Where is Tufts a leader in generating entrepreneurial ideas and ventures?
Tufts is unique in that it doesn't have a business school, but it has a couple of areas where the university itself is a thought leader. Around social impact—nobody else has the strengths that Tufts has. Tufts is especially strong also in healthcare and life-science interests because we have four professional schools in the healthcare sciences.
Finally, a big-picture question: Why is an entrepreneurship center important to Tufts?
I feel strongly about the importance of entrepreneurial thinking; fundamentally, it’s a great life skill that can benefit anyone, and so it can amplify your experience of anything you choose to study here at Tufts. We’re a university-wide resource that’s all about discovering what you’re capable of—and sometimes that might surprise you!
I can relate that to my own career. For the longest time, I thought: I have to get a job. It was always the job. Then I started to take ownership of my experience of work, and I realized I could make a change. I could drive my life. If I needed to make a switch, I could do it. That’s really what thinking like an entrepreneur is all about. An entrepreneurial mindset derives strength from knowing you have agency. How can you say no to that?