Interview Dr. Alexander McKelvie Whitman School of Management Syracuse University

Interview with Dr. Alexander McKelvie, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship & Emerging Enterprises, Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University

Dr. Alexander McKelvie is the Department Chair and an Associate Professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship & Emerging Enterprises (EEE) at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. At Syracuse, Alex has taken a leading role in developing and teaching world-class programs, including designing new courses and entrepreneurship training programs for veterans and military families.

Alexander has received teaching awards from Syracuse University, the Whitman School of Management, the EEE Department, and from his former university in Sweden. He has worked with many entrepreneurial startups during this time as well.

His scholarly work deals with questions regarding two main areas: how and why do firms grow, and how do entrepreneurs make decisions about opportunities. Dr. Alexander McKelvie’s research has received a number of major international awards, including best doctoral dissertation in Entrepreneurship from the National Federation of Independent Businesses and multiple awards at the leading Entrepreneurship conferences.

Alex has published his work in many of the most important Entrepreneurship journals and is on the editorial boards of multiple journals. His research has been profiled in Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and Inc. magazine, among other outlets, and he is on the CNBC Disruptors 50 Advisory Council.

1. Congratulations on having your entrepreneurship programs ranked in the Top 20 in the Nation by Princeton Review/Entrepreneurship Magazine. What do you believe are the qualities that Whitman School of Management offers to its students that contributes to your program ranking success?

Thank you. It’s always an honor to be recognized by our peers and other rankings bodies for the good work that we’ve done. We were fortunate to be early movers in entrepreneurship education, where we’ll be celebrating 20 years of teaching entrepreneurship in the Fall.

This means that we’ve had a lot of time to develop expertise in this area. You may have seen that we are ranked #2 in the country for entrepreneurship education and #1 in the country for veterans to study entrepreneurship, also by USA Today/CollegeFactual. We were also named the NASDAQ Center of Entrepreneurial Excellence this year.

Most rankings organizations look at different metrics as part of their evaluations. We’re seeing patterns of positive recognition in terms of three things:

1) the breadth of our program 

across our teaching, research, and outreach missions. There are just so many impactful things going on in each of these spheres. We teach over 2500 students a year and focus on startups, corporate entrepreneurship, family business and social entrepreneurship in our teaching. We have a large group of full-time faculty who are world-leaders in research including being journal editors and training doctoral students from around the globe in addition to be master teachers. We also have significant and impactful community programming with the Couri Hatchery, South Side Innovation Center, and WISE Women’s Business Center. Being a dedicated department of entrepreneurship really helps us direct resources in the right way for combined impact.

2) the quality of our work in terms of depth of

Programming, quality outcomes such as number of student startups and their successes, and number of impactful/highly cited scholarly articles.

3) our support of military veterans and their families

Our partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families in entrepreneurship training has had a national if not international impact on over 60,000 veterans over the past years. This has become central to the university’s commitment to veterans and their families.

2. There are a lot of people in the startup world that believe entrepreneurship cannot be taught in the classroom. What are your thoughts on that?

There are certain things that can’t be taught, such as passion and hustle. But there are a large number of coachable, trainable, and assessment-based skills that can be taught. These helps to guide that passion, make better decisions, avoid common errors and develop an entrepreneurial mindset.

Our long-standing pedagogical focus  at Whitman school of management has been on experiential learning, having students apply and practice entrepreneurship. Each of our courses involves some sort of experience and applied project, whether students are working on their own companies or on someone else’s. One of the first things we do is have students try to sell something to a stranger. It sounds easy but many students haven’t done this before.

How can someone be expected to sell products and services to support a business if they can’t even convince the first customer? And the way they learn about what works and what doesn’t is by trying it.

We’ve found this experiential approach to be an effective way to teach entrepreneurship for the past 20 years and other schools are now more fully embracing this approach as well.

3. What type of things do you do at Whitman school of management to balance between teaching theory and providing practical experiences for students in entrepreneurship?

Theory and practice are intimately intertwined. They aren’t opposites. Academic rigor is fundamental for education. We’re a student-centered research university and we strive to make our scientific studies accessible to broader audiences. Part of what we do is show why some theory and models are applicable and useful.

The models and theories help to guide decisions, make better analyses, simplify complex issues, and think in different ways. In other words, they are often meant as tools that can be applicable in practice – and oftentimes are the center of ‘best practice’. I’d say that entrepreneurship research, as compared to other areas, is very well connected to industry. Theory is informed by and informs best practice.

Some of the most important tools used by entrepreneurs come from academics, like the business model canvas. Our team is very active in ‘translating’ our research to a practitioner audience, and that is one reason why we have frequent presence in Forbes, Fortune, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Inc. magazine.

It helps ensure that we remain close to practice and that the mixture of academic rigor and practical applications are in place in our education. It also helps us stay relevant in the marketplace.

4. Do you believe a successful entrepreneurship faculty should have experience in starting and operating a business?

We’ve built our team to provide a balance between those who have academic excellence and those who have long-standing industry experience.

It’s the combination of both areas where we’ve seen that some of the best synergies lie – each contributes to overall student learning that students would otherwise miss. I think that both are necessary for a successful program.

Our research faculty do have industry experience as well, with some variations in the level and length of experience – including in new product development, family business, consulting, as well as startups.

But all of the faculty are entrepreneurial in their approach to teaching, for instance. I don’t think they would survive long in the business – or in our program in particular – if they weren’t willing or able to be innovative.

5. Startup founders often contribute the company’s success on their team’s contribution. How do you create a classroom environment that fosters productive networking and team development?

EEE Faculty Headshots WSOM

We do a number of different things, and that varies depending on the class and its objectives. In one of the classes that I teach, an introduction course, we have about 80% of students from outside of the business school.

They come from all the other schools on campus. What that practically means is that the students generally don’t know each other and most of them are in the same boat in terms of having limited business experience. It’s wonderful because they are usually very motivated students who are there to learn!

We do a number of things as part of ice breakers, in-class activities solving problems, and discussions. That helps. After about the second week of the semester, we do a speed dating exercise where each student ends up “dating” about a dozen other students in the class for about 5 minutes each.

There is a structure and set of objectives that guide the dating – such as figuring out skills sets and aspirations for type of business to start. The outcome is that students end up forming their business teams knowing that they are likely to need different skills to achieve their goals and people want to start up different types of companies (such as high-growth tech companies vs. socially-oriented small businesses).

I’ve found this exercise really teaches students to think about their teams – but it also ends up making a really open and friendly class environment afterwards where the students know each other better and will more freely interact. We do other things like that throughout the semester as well.

6. How does your undergraduate curriculum in entrepreneurship different from that of your graduate programs? How are their experience different?

I’d say that there are some important similarities in undergraduate and graduate education. Both involve experiential learning, draw upon other majors in their education, and are challenging.

Two major differences between the programs are that the expectations are higher for graduate students – to understand more complex issues, to deliver more insightful and rigorous work, and to grasp these issues in shorter periods of time.

Graduate students also draw upon greater industry experience in their work; that helps to connect the dots more. A further difference is that we offer some graduate education in an online format – that allows people to work and study from a lot of different places and still get quality education from the Whitman School.

7. I noticed you offer your students business incubators on campus. How does that work and how does it help these student startups?

Syracuse University offers a large number of resources on campus. One of these is the Couri Hatchery, which is an early stage co-working space housed in the Whitman School of Management.

We have full-time staff there, including an entrepreneur-in-residence to help students in the startup process, with guidance, advice and connections. We also offer mentoring from a large number of industry mentors, such as legal, IP, finance, HR, and business development, to name a few. Students can also work there too.

There are other excellent resources elsewhere though, such as the Blackstone Launchpad housed in Bird Library, the Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Newhouse School, veteran entrepreneur specific resources at IVMF, and a MakerSpace in the Kimmel building. Combined, and when you include some of the community-based resources such as the WISE Women’s Business Center, there truly is an impressive commitment to entrepreneurship in Syracuse.

8. Are there any funding or angel investment programs available at Whitman for entrepreneurs?

We offer a number of competitions and events for student entrepreneurs where they can win money for their businesses. We give away approximately $100,000 a year across multiple programs. However, it’s important to us that our program does NOT take an equity share in the student businesses. I believe that that is a clear conflict of interest in doing that – our goal is to help make students successful.

Our team can provide experiences and connections that can help them do that. If I have ownership in the company, then I might be more interested in having students grow their business than go to class or get a solid education, for example.

And our program is not in the business to be investors in startups – we provide education, support, and mentoring. So we don’t provide equity funding. We do make connections with outside angels, venture capitalists and other potential industry mentors that might also provide funding however.

9. I was fortunate enough to participate as a judge in your student business competition a few years ago. There was a lot of excitement and energy in the room from both faculty and students. Can you describe to my readers how students prepare for the capstone course and what they are expected to display to the judges?

Thanks for helping with that competition. Our capstone course is probably one of the best things that the Whitman School does. It is the culminating experience for all Whitman students, regardless of major.

That means that we have accounting majors, marketing majors, supply chain majors, and all of the others in the same class. Students work in a team and their task as part of that course is to develop their own unique business idea, and then do the market research, customer development, and feasibility to understand that this is a real idea worth pursuing. This includes looking at how a product or service will be made, how the business will be financed, and how it will be marketed to customers.

At the end of the semester, students present their plans to potential investors and executives and ask for at least $100,000 in external equity. Students have to defend their choices and the work that they’ve done – but also really see how all of the different parts of the company fit together.

For instance, if they change their marketing strategy, then they see how that impacts the financials. If they want to expand geographically, they have to figure out where the next market is and how they’ll pay for it.. It’s truly amazing to see how much our students accomplish with the quality of ideas and insight they gain in just one semester. Every year we see fundable ideas and high-potential products.

Once they’re done with the course, students are usually so proud to see what they’ve put together and how much they’ve learned. And the hard work and insight they gain really pays off once they’re working in industry – there have been countless stories from alumni and recruiters about how important that capstone course was for their careers.

Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University

10. What innovative things can we expect from Whitman school of management and your entrepreneurship program in the near future?

Over the past few years, we’ve made a number of important innovations. Some of these have been on the curriculum side where we’ve added new courses and updated some contents of existing courses since entrepreneurship is a fast-changing area.

We’ve added additional research centers and activities, such as the Institute for an Entrepreneurial Society, which examines issues related to public policy and entrepreneurship, and hosting international conferences such as one we recently hosted on mental health and entrepreneurship.

We’ve done a lot more work with our alumni, such as hosting an entrepreneurship bootcamp in NYC, an Orange Tank event at Homecoming that pits young alums versus students in a Shark Tank style competition, and honoured our successful alums with awards like the Orange Entrepreneur of the Year award.

We’re going to continue to do those types of innovations in the future – there is a lot more work for us to do there and especially as we better leverage our online educational technology.

In the near future, we’re also going to see further expansion and collaboration of entrepreneurship across campus to include more students from different schools and sharing resources – and we’ve already made good progress on this in the past year. We’re also working on creating a best-in-class entrepreneurial ecosystem that includes students, alumni, faculty, the community, and others that will be a transformational program for the entire university.

While we’re already among the best programs, we’re committed to becoming the best place for entrepreneurship in the country.