By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine
Inkandescent Intern Rachel Biderman contributed to this report.
Matt Woolman is the director of Creative Entrepreneurship in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he leads a school-wide mission to transform entrepreneurship from a supplementary activity to an integrated culture that maximizes the exploitation of creativity, knowledge, and research into innovative products and sustainable ventures.
In his work, he defines potential fields of collaboration with academic disciplines and industry, and he develops dynamic programming to prepare students and alumni to apply their arts education in unique and rewarding ways.
Previously, Woolman served in a similar role as the first director of Design Entrepreneurship & Industry Affiliations on the VCU campus in Qatar for two years. Prior to that, he chaired the Department of Graphic Design on the Richmond campus for six years.
So we were excited to sit down with the educator in his office at VCUarts in Richmond to talk about why he’s teaching budding artists to be entrepreneurs.
Click here to listen to our podcast interview with Matt Woolman on the Inkandescent Radio Network.
Scroll down to read our Q&A.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us about the VCU School of the Arts.
Matt Woolman: The School of the Arts is one of the largest schools of art and design in the country, specifically in the public realm. We have about 3,000 students, and we’re ranked as the number one public art and design school in the country by US News & World Report. We’ve held that ranking for many years now. We take pride in being a large, well-resourced school within a larger research university. We’ve maintained a strong tradition in educating our students in the various traditional disciplines of the fine arts and design, including painting, craft, sculpture, graphic design, fashion, and performing arts.
Be Inkandescent: How, and why, did you start the entrepreneurial program for art students? Are the students eager to balance their artistic sensibilities with a business mindset?
Matt Woolman: A few years ago, we surveyed School of Arts alumni across all disciplines about their experience here, and the outcomes of the survey revealed several things. One was that they all had a great education in their discipline: training, honing their talents, and developing skills in the specific arts and design disciplines. However, a lot of them said that they wish they had more experience and exposure to developing business skills, specifically how to run your own business after you graduate, how to market and sell your works, and how to run a design firm. To us, that was a red flag, but also a great opportunity.
These results coincided with the recession the country experienced, and where a lot of parents of prospective students were asking, “My son wants to major in Painting, but what kind of job opportunities are out there for him after he graduates?” Those kind of “employability” questions have increased in the last five or so years. So we wanted to know: What kinds of jobs are available for students?
Be Inkandescent: So how did you find a solution?
Matt Woolman: We realized that to enhance and complement our students’ creative skills development, they need to develop business skills, and understand how their works function in the larger world of commerce. I had been running a similar program at our campus in Qatar starting in 2009, and I proposed initiating a similar program at VCU’s main campus here in Richmond and overseeing the development of a creative entrepreneurship program. Not a major, not a degree program like we have with our departments, but a program that will serve all 15 of our departments in the School of the Arts.
Be Inkandescent: Once you were back in Richmond in 2011, what did you do to initiate the program with the students?
Matt Woolman: I immediately offered a course called “Creative Entrepreneurship,” which seemed really popular with the students. That was a good sign that the students wanted the opportunity to develop their own business and learn the skills to do that. Since then, we’ve launched what we call the Creative Disruption Lab—a sexier name for Creative Entrepreneurship. It kind of helps us focus the idea of entrepreneurship into the creative disciplines; it provides us with a space. It’s less of a single program than a platform of three parts.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us about the Creative Disruption Lab. It sounds fascinating.
Matt Woolman: The first is coursework in entrepreneurship; students can complete a series of courses that will eventually become a certificate. We are launching an accelerator, the second of the three components, a space where students can test-drive their business ideas in an academic setting where they can learn and be mentored, and avoid the high risks of launching in the marketplace. The third component is what we call collaboration, CoLab for short. That is where we engage our student as interns to work on projects that we design, but that don’t fit neatly in any department or discipline; they’re intentionally multidisciplinary, involving not just the arts but also disciplines like computer science, business, and engineering. We purposely define these projects ambiguously; we charge students with clarifying the project, identifying the problem, doing the research, and coming up with solutions.
Be Inkandescent: And that’s absolutely what an entrepreneur has to do in the real world. So this entrepreneur program is officially launching this year; what are your long-term goals for this program?
Matt Woolman: The large, long-term goal is to transform what we think is higher education. Higher education has gone down a path for hundreds of years, a very narrow path, and what we’d like to do is upend that. We want to provide the best of what a university can provide, but also connect students more closely with the real world that they will be experiencing after they graduate.
So the big goal is to engage our students with real-world thinking right off the bat, from day one in Art Foundation, the first-year program that our students go through. Engage them as individuals who have ideas and who can contribute to society even at the age of 18.
Be Inkandescent: Why change that tradition now?
Matt Woolman: I think the timing’s right—we’re experiencing dramatic increases in tuition, and universities are challenged with finding resources because other revenue sources are drying up. Another goal is for students to have the confidence and the skills to go out and literally create their own jobs.
I’d also love to have the next Instagram started by VCU Arts students—I’d love to have businesses launched every year by students. It’s a lofty goal, but I think it’s quite possible. Students come into the school because they have talents and skills that are unique, and it’s about teaching students to channel those into ways that they may not have expected, that can contribute to what’s out there.
Be Inkandescent: How have VCUarts faculty responded to this innovative program?
Matt Woolman: The kids are really excited about the program. But the pushback comes from faculty—from those in the various departments or disciplines who view their discipline as sacred and who want their students to make names for themselves as artists. I completely understand their concerns, but when students want to veer off that path and pursue something that might be considered more commercial or business-oriented, it’s usually on their own initiative.
Be Inkandescent: How do you see the reception of the program in the future?
Matt Woolman: Looking forward, especially launching the Creative Entrepreneurship program, it’s clear that art school faculty members are becoming aware of the value of entrepreneurship. That doesn’t necessarily mean starting a business and making a lot of money. Entrepreneurship translates to skills, a mindset, and a confidence to go out and—if you want to sell your paintings around the world, the ability to do just that.
Be Inkandescent: Can you give us some examples of students who have shined using this entrepreneurial approach?
Matt Woolman: We had a student in the graphic design department who, from the day he was admitted as a sophomore, identified a local design firm and said, “I want to intern with you. Yes, I am only a sophomore, but I want the experience.” He was so motivated, driven, talented, and committed that this firm took him on, and he stayed with them for three years. He’s been graduated for a few years now and he still works for that company. He’s worked his way up while the firm has grown, and they’ve worked with him. That’s a perfect example of someone who realizes the value of the formal setting of a university, but will supplement that with a real-world experience that he’s created for himself.
Be Inkandescent: I wish that were the norm, because there are so many entrepreneurs out there who want talented students, would pay them what they can afford, and will grow together with the students. If universities and entrepreneurs truly did work hand-in-glove, that would be great.
Matt Woolman: Exactly. We hear about Steve Jobs dropping out of school to start his own company and becoming wildly successful, but stories like his are exceptions. The ideal is to have students start successful companies while staying in school to benefit from both experiences. I had a student who chose a major that had the fewest required courses and the most electives because that gave him the most course flexibility to achieve his entrepreneurial goals. He is an example of the students who are literally customizing their own education in a formal way to accommodate their needs.
Be Inkandescent: You know who else did that? John Mackey from Whole Foods. I think that’s phenomenal—let’s encourage more of that.
Matt Woolman: I think now it’s even more vital than ever for larger universities to allow that to take place. Create your own major; I think that’s a great idea.
Be Inkandescent: What do you envision this program looking like in five years?
Matt Woolman: Ultimately we want it to serve as a model for transforming higher education. We’d like for other schools of art and design to consider transforming their programs, too. We want a number of success stories, not just locally but nationally and internationally, and we want to increase our focus around the world.
Be Inkandescent: Thank you so much, Matt. We wish you all the best ineducating entrepreneurs.
Click here for more information about the VCU School of the Arts.