UW’s Connie Bourassa-Shaw on the Genetics of Entrepreneurs, and Why Seattle Is Startup Mecca

4/16/09

Connie Bourassa-Shaw has been the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) in the Foster School of Business for just three years. But her ties to the UW go back to 1987, when she was a writer for the UW economic and business magazine, Pacific Northwest Executive. She has played various roles in the UW business scene since then, including director of communications at the business school and executive director of the Program for Innovation and Entrepreneurship—a program for business school students only that Bourassa-Shaw later developed into the CIE, which serves students from all disciplines.

After a brief stint away from the university as the executive director of the Northwest Entrepreneur Network, Bourassa-Shaw returned in 2006 to head the CIE. I called her up to find out more about her thoughts on UW’s take on business, how her center helps academics find their way in the commercial world, and what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. Despite the dismal economy, which has impacted the CIE directly (she has had to put plans for new programs on hold due to budget constraints), Bourassa-Shaw remains optimistic that Seattle will continue to grow as a hub for startups.

The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Xconomy: What is the role of the CIE at UW?

Connie Bourassa-Shaw
: We do all entrepreneurship, all the time. We are really trying to instill entrepreneurship into the fabric of the University of Washington, so that any student, any faculty member, any staff member who is interested in entrepreneurship can take classes, participate in activities, find the resources they need to do a startup, which include broad accessibility to the entrepreneurial community. We have very strong inroads into the community at large, both the venture capital and angel side, the equity side, and entrepreneur side. Serial entrepreneurs who understand the process from one end to the other can be a resource in terms of being a mentor or a coach.

We provide a special program for faculty, who are different from students doing our entrepreneurship curriculum. I work closely with TechTransfer, because that’s where any faculty or student has to go if they are working on something with commercial potential.

X: What are the student programs, and where do they fit into the Seattle innovation scene?

CB-S: We provide a curriculum for students. We have about 700 MBAs, and 88 percent of those take at least one class in entrepreneurship. I get asked the question a lot, how can you teach someone to be an entrepreneur? My sense is that you can’t turn anyone into an entrepreneur. But there is a type of person who is destined to be an entrepreneur. I usually say it’s a genetic defect. For those people there is a basic desire to start something. Often these are people who feel they can’t work for anybody. If you look at the public as a whole, it’s about five percent, but in Seattle it’s higher. Seattle is a great place to be an entrepreneur. There are lots of resources here for entrepreneurs. I don’t see that changing any time soon. If anything, I see that becoming even more pronounced. Seattle will continue to be a startup mecca.

X: How do students benefit from the CIE’s competitions, like the 12-year-old Business Plan Competition (currently underway) and the newly launched Environmental Business Competition?

CB-S: One is this idea of entrepreneurship in a safe environment. Chances are, the business plan students start in college is version 1.0. But I can promise when they do version 2.0, they’ll be prepared. The other advantage is the visibility. When you’re a student, you really have a magic card. You can call almost anybody and say, I’m a student at UW and I was wondering if you could take 10 minutes to talk to me, and chances are people will, because they like helping students. We say, take advantage of this. Start building your network while you’re a student. And for the competitions, the judges are the people you need to know. That’s a tremendous resource.

The networking thing never goes away. I think there is a misperception of entrepreneurs as lone wolves or mavericks. Nobody starts a company by themselves. You need to know people.

X: Are you giving people different advice in this economy than you were a few years ago?

CB-S: I think downturns are actually a great time to start companies. Losing your job is one of the major impetuses in starting companies. People start looking at things like, what are my strengths, what am I good at, what am I passionate about, and startup ideas come out. Then there are also talented people out there looking for work, so it’s easier to find good people for your team. And space and equipment are cheaper. Investments are not impossible to find, but it is harder now. You have to have a good plan. But early-stage investors still like early-stage entrepreneurs.

Rachel Tompa is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. She can be reached at rmtompa@yahoo.com. Follow @

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