• July 2012

Is the University the New Final Frontier?

By David Miller
Director of Entrepreneurship
Mason Center for Social Entrepreneurship

Microsoft and Google, FedEx, Facebook, Dell Computer, and Under Armour are but some of the highly successful, innovative firms created and founded by students on the campuses of U.S. universities.

It’s not a surprise, considering that American campuses offer the attributes reminiscent of the American frontier—an environment that fostered countless pioneers and innovators as the U.S. expansion grew west.

Remember the Wild West?

Back in 1893, in fact, historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his Frontier Thesis of American History, noting that, “Each new frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past,” he explained. “Besides the ideal of conquest and of discovery, the pioneer had the ideal of personal development free from social and governmental constraints.”

Essentially, Turner believed in the settlement of massive, unregulated, asset-rich areas by a diverse group of people. From experience, he knew such an environment forged a strong American character—and would help create new political institutions, which are unique and hold as their central values liberty, economic self-determination, and change.

Indeed, the following attributes of the western frontier were what made it so valuable:

  • Economic assets, diverse populations, and lack of established institutional controls.
  • Wealth-creating materials and opportunities, including gold, timber, water, land, and new populations and cities. This was a clear and obvious draw that offered something that no other place in the world could to the average person, especially immigrants.
  • Economic, social, and political self-determination, thanks to the frontier attracting people from around the country, and the world—allowing them to break the bondage of social rank and rise to a higher plane of existence.

Self-determination remains a key offering of the frontier.

And there’s no better place to find all of these criteria today than at universities, which offer:

  • human capital—professors, students, and staff;
  • technical and physical assets—classes to learn skills, extensive contests, and clubs;
  • consumers of all kinds—from students, faculty, staff, and guests eager to buy food, fashion, software, and other services.

Moreover, campuses offers diversity across countless dimensions—from nationality of students and faculty and political philosophies to fields of study and theoretical approaches to unanswered scientific queries.

This diversity provides opportunities to learn from others, leverage their strengths, and finally, enjoy more creative output.

How can you access this hotbed for research and development?

1. Spend time on campus and meet the faculty and students. Universities and colleges offer countless events and opportunities to connect with professors, staff, and students—from pubic lectures and conferences to the hiring of interns and the sponsoring of research and student activities. Universities, like frontiers, are very open places with fluid borders—call your local university or your own alumni association to begin getting engaged.

2. Mimic the frontier/university attributes in your organization. Open the minds of your staff by bringing in a speaker from another field to discuss recent innovations and advances. Encourage your team to each find an intriguing book, or research project, to discuss. Then have lunch-and-learn sessions to spark ideas for innovation.

3. Take on a frontier-like mindset. Imagine that the controlling institutions of your industry or marketplace are non-existent. What would you do different? How would you start over? What does this tell you about change and opportunity available to you and your organization?

4. Write the equation on the wall in your office: available assets + diversity + freedom = innovation and entrepreneurship.

5. Now, go for it! And keep me posted on the wild, wonderful new company, product, and service that you create: dmillerq@gmu.edu.


About David J. Miller

David Miller is the director of entrepreneurship at the Mason Center for Social Entrepreneurship. He is also a supporting faculty member at George Mason University’s School of Management (SOM), teaching New Venture Creation, and he is a PhD candidate at Mason’s School of Public Policy working with Dr. Zoltan J. Acs.

Miller has been part of multiple new ventures over the last 15 years, most recently serving as the founder and CEO of FamilyFantasySports.com, an online platform for family-friendly fantasy football. Before that, Miller helped found and served as the COO of the Creative Class Group (CCG), leading business development, new product and service creation, and strategy.

For more information visit CampusEntrepreneurship.wordpress.com.

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