TrustedPeer Interview with Marty Katz, Chief Innovation Officer of the University of Denver and Executive Director of Project X-ITE

Marty Katz was interviewed on December 6, 2019 by Philip Bouchard, Executive Director of TrustedPeer Entrepreneurship Advisory. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Interview questions and highlights:

  • What do you view as your primary roles as Center director?
  • How have you been able to accomplish so much in such a short period of time?
  • How have you leveraged the design process to understand what your students needed?
  • How did you avoid bias in your design process?
  • How does the size of DU’s student population influence your selection of the types of programs that you offer?
  • What is your strategy for funding existing programs, courses and operations? What is your plan for funding the next set of programs?
  • What approaches have you found to be effective in engaging students?
  • Should courses in entrepreneurship be required?
  • How do you encourage women and 1st generation students to dip their toes into the waters of entrepreneurship?
  • Do you influence the make-up of student teams for diversity or do teams come together organically?
  • Do each of the teams in your 10-week Pioneering Summer Accelerator follow the same program as a cohort?
  • How do you engage and leverage your alumni entrepreneurs?
  • What are the criteria and elements that need to come together to make those university-to-university partnerships work?
  • What are your current challenges and how do you plan to address them?
  • Can you share any decisions that you have made as an ecenter director that you would advise other universities to avoid?
  • Is there a suggested or recommended tenure for an entrepreneurship center director?
  • What would you advise university ecenter directors who are just starting their entrepreneurship center and programs?

Philip Bouchard: As the Director of Project X-ITE and Chief Innovation Officer at the University of Denver what do you view as your primary roles?

Marty Katz: The most important role is to set the vision and mission for Project X-ITE, and to make sure that it aligns with the needs and strengths of our stakeholders – particularly our students. Students are our most important stakeholders because our mission is to future-proof them by helping them build a strong innovator’s mindset. 

The next most important role is finding the absolute best people to run our programs, giving them what they need to succeed, and then getting out of their way. 

Another important role for me as executive director is to interface with our University and our four member units. Fundamentally, Project X-ITE is a partnership between four academic units at the University of Denver: business; engineering and computer science; law; and social work. 

The last key role is to make sure that the community knows about what we’re doing and can get excited about our work.

Bouchard: You assumed leadership for Project X-ITE in 2017, a year after the Center was founded. Previously, you were the dean of the law school at the University of Denver. In the last two years, a very short period of time in the life of a university entrepreneurship center, you’ve significantly expanded the number of programs. How have you been able to accomplish so much in such a short period of time? What does it take to be a successful university entrepreneurship Director? 

Katz: The first year that we were operational I served in a very different role. I had helped form Project X-ITE as dean of the law school with my fellow deans. In our first year, we needed to put a stake in the ground to make sure that people in the Denver ecosystem understood and knew that we were open for business. That effort was incredibly successful, but it was really only a first step, a first phase in which I played more of founder role than an operational role.  

After that phase, I assumed the role of executive director and we pivoted significantly. Our next step was to ask, “What can we do that’s distinctive at Project X-ITE?” The answer had to relate to the fact that we were doing entrepreneurship and innovation in a university setting. Once we had that framed, it became obvious: We simply had to be about the students. 

The next step was to ask, “What do our students need most as they face a world with so much uncertainty?” The answer that we came up with was to help them develop an entrepreneurial and innovator’s mindset, to help them add value in any environment, and empower them to launch creative solutions. When we do that, we ignite a community of thinkers and doers with the skills to thrive in an ever-changing world. 

Once we had that vision and mission, people coalesced around it. That vision and mission got people on board and energized. At that point, it was simply a matter of figuring out how to execute on that mission. 

In executing, our goal was to model the very type of entrepreneurship that we’re trying to teach. We tried a lot of small experiments and learned from each one. We scaled the ones that worked and pivoted where necessary to make sure that we were meeting the needs of our students. 

We also engaged students in a design process to make sure that we understood and could fill the gaps in terms of the things they needed. All that allowed us to get moving quickly and effectively. 

The last thing in terms of how we got moving so quickly – and this is perhaps the most important part of all this – was our team: Nina Sharma, Kanitha Heng Snow and Jess Neumann. They have been truly awesome at dreaming up big ideas and making them happen. 

Bouchard: How have you leveraged the design process to understand what your students need?

Katz: Let me give you a great example. In talking to our students and trying to figure out what they needed to be successful, one of the themes that came up over and over again was an incubator. We’d already launched our accelerator program, but we were finding that students were not always ready for that program in the numbers that we might have hoped. We were trying to figure out what could we do to prepare students to get to that stage. The feedback we got was that we needed to build some kind of incubator to get students from the idea stage to a stage where they would be ready to be part of an accelerator program.   

We repeatedly met with a group of students to figure out what this might look like and got a lot of ideas from them. We then got lucky because a space on campus became available which almost never happens on campuses. We moved in and asked the students to take responsibility for setting up the space, creating norms for the space, programming within the space, and giving us constant feedback about what was working and what was not. 

That’s now been through two or three iterations. Students have been at the core of this design process throughout. It’s been tremendously successful.

Bouchard: How did you avoid bias in your design process? Did you go cross-disciplinary to pull in students from all of the different disciplines and colleges across the University of Denver?

Katz: Absolutely! In fact, we have a tremendous advantage in that respect because the core infrastructure of Project X-ITE is cross-disciplinary, being a partnership among four schools. 

Our challenge has been to make sure that we are reaching students who might not be in those four schools. We’ve done that through word of mouth and targeted outreach. The result is that students who come in to Project X-ITE are graduates and undergraduates from every program in the University. 

Over time we have developed repeat users. These are people who have built multiple businesses often within the Project X-ITE ecosystem and who have made X-ITE their primary activity on campus. Once we have those folks and teams of students from all over campus, we end up with a strong internally based design group. 

The next step was to go to those students and ask them, “Connect us with people who are not on your team. Connect us with people who, if we’re doing the right things and providing the right services, would want to become part of Project X-ITE.

Bouchard: There is a wide range of student populations at universities. There are fantastic programs at universities with a small student population. For example, Babson College with 3,000 students has a fantastic program as does Trinity University in San Antonio with 2,300 students. On the other end of the population spectrum of universities with great programs is Arizona State University with 75,000 students. University of Denver has 11,000 students. How does the size of DU’s student population influence your selection of the types of programs that you offer? 

Katz: First of all, we’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of the programs that you’re talking about and they are fantastic. One of the benefits of being a latecomer to this world as being able to learn from the fantastic work of others. Babson College (see TrustedPeer interview with Debi Kleiman), was kind enough to let us check out their programs. That opportunity has been invaluable.

In terms of our student population there are two important characteristics. 

First, our student population is mixed in a lot of interesting ways. It’s about half graduate, half undergraduate. Our graduate programs are almost all professional programs. I’ll admit bias since I was Dean of the law school, but this provides a great mix of highly motivated students. This mix is not incidental. It is part of who we are as a university. One of our core beliefs is that we are stronger as a collective of our parts than each of the individual parts. That belief is the foundation of Project X-ITE. 

The second thing that is distinctive about our population has to do with the environment around us. We’re in Denver, one of the most thriving entrepreneurial hubs in the country. All of our programs, therefore, need to take into account not only our diverse student population but also our location and the advantages of being in a place like Denver.

Bouchard: What is your strategy for funding existing programs, courses and operations? What is your plan for funding the next set of programs?

Katz: Let me answer that question in terms of three phases, where we are just entering the third phase.

In the first two phases, we were funded largely, but not entirely, out of University strategic planning funds. Project X-ITE is in many ways a brainchild of a big strategic planning process that the university did. Project X-ITE was key part of that strategic plan, designed to showcase a lot of the ideas within that strategic plan, particularly the cross-disciplinary piece and the community connected piece. 

Because of this, the University decided to take a chunk of its strategic planning funds as seed funding for Project X-ITE. That was the core of our funding for Phase 1.  

Even with University funding in Phase 1, we still had community engagement goals. We wanted to get folks from the community on board. Asking them to put in some funding was a good way to build connection and get buy-in. It wasn’t that the absolute number of dollars mattered. It was folks having a sense of ownership – having skin in the game. This mostly took the form of corporate sponsorships. We had some terrific sponsors who have followed us into the next phases. 

In the second phase, as we started to build programs to serve students, we’ve been able to find people in the community, local entrepreneurs, who’ve gotten very excited about these programs, particularly our summer accelerator program, as well as a handful of our other programs. Based on their excitement, and their desire to see our students thrive and grow as entrepreneurs, these community members have been willing to support these programs. And they have seen their funds make a huge difference.  

We’re now entering a third phase, where we have a solid proof of concept. The idea is now to go out and launch a campaign to find more ongoing and permanent support in the entrepreneurship community.

Bouchard: University entrepreneurship centers struggle with student engagement. What approaches have you found to be effective in engaging students? What kind of marketing works best for student engagement? What doesn’t work?

Katz: Engagement is indeed one of the huge challenges that we recognized early on. In fact, that was our first hire after our initial executive director and managing director. Nina Sharma (our Managing Director) and I set about thinking, “How do we answer the engagement question? How do we make sure we are reaching our intended audience?” It was clear that our next hire needed to be someone with a strong marketing and communications background, and that was Kanitha Heng Snow. Prioritizing student engagement was baked into our team from the beginning. 

What we found in terms of the type of marketing that works best is word-of-mouth and social media. Once students get excited about something, they are not shy about letting other people know. We also found that it is also important to find the channels that students tune into in today’s information-flooded environment where they live. 

We found that the two best channels are faculty and advisors. It was important to make sure that those two groups know about, and are excited about, what we’re doing. In the advisor world, it’s personal relationships, such as taking the time to go around campus and meeting with the different advisors at the different academic units and makeing sure they know and understand what’s going on at Project X-ITE. We have to help them see us as partners in giving the very best opportunities to their students. 

On the other hand, working with faculty has its own set of challenges and opportunities. The opportunity is that faculty members are at the center of students’ academic universes. The challenge is that faculty are incredibly busy, so we need to make it both valuable and easy for them to be part of X-ITE. The student-focused mission of X-ITE has really helped here, as that is what our faculty are all about. 

In terms of the specifics, we built a wonderful group of Faculty Fellows – faculty members from the four partnership partner units, and also at other academic units on campus. We meet almost every month in person, and talk about what everyone is doing and how to make sure our students know about the opportunities we can provide. We also provide the Fellows with materials, including one-pagers and a newsletter, so that they have both the big picture and the details. That way, faculty can help their students know what’s going on. This has worked extremely well. The Fellows have been just terrific. 

The last thing that has been a tremendous boon to our outreach is a popular undergraduate entrepreneurship course, taught by a popular professor named Stephen Haag. The course, called The Fourth Industrial Revolution enrolls about 800 students per year in a highly experiential format. Although it is technically a business course and is a required course for certain business majors, half of the enrollment is non-business students from all across campus. 

Students get tremendously excited in this course; they get to build stuff and then pitch it as part of a competition. This course has been one of the greatest opportunities for us because it is a broad funnel in which we get the benefit of 800 students a year who’ve just gotten fired up about their ideas and their imagination and the possibilities of entrepreneurship.

Bouchard: I recently attended the Lean Innovation Educators Summit and learned that sometimes you need to encourage engagement, to be a benevolent dictator, by setting a course as a requirement to get students to be aware of and excited about entrepreneurship. Should courses in entrepreneurship be required?

Katz: From my law Dean days, I tend to be philosophically negative on requirements. Not always, but my first instinct is, particularly in the graduate world but even at the undergraduate world, that our students are more or less adults. They can make choices for themselves. Prerequisites may may help people get exposed to things that they wouldn’t otherwise get exposed to, but that alone isn’t going to do it. 

That’s what I love about our gateway course. Half of the students that are in the course are not there because they were required to be in it but because it is a course led by a fantastic professor. He has created an experience that students all across campus hear about and say, “Yeah, I’ve got to have some of that.”

That being said, are there benefits to trying to push students beyond their comfort zone and exposing them to entrepreneurship if that wasn’t something that was already on their radar screen? Yes, but I’m not sure you can do that by forcing them to. For example, if I’m chair of the English program or the philosophy program, I’m not sure how useful it’s going to be to say to my students, “You must do something in entrepreneurship,” as opposed to having them hear from a friend, “Stephen Haag teaches this really cool course. Even if you are not the slightest bit interested in entrepreneurship, you should take this course.”

Bouchard: What about inclusivity in terms of gender and in terms of first generation students who are financially challenged? How do you encourage women and 1st gen students to dip their toes into the waters of entrepreneurship?

Katz: It is a huge challenge. We were incredibly proud of our most recent cohort within within our summer accelerator program. Of the eight teams, three of them were female led. Three out of eight is not quite where we want to be but it’s a lot closer than where we started. 

The key, at least as far as we can tell, seems to be how students see themselves. The “I am an entrepreneur” mindset among incoming students unfortunately is concentrated among men from high SES (Socioeconomic Status) environments. That doesn’t mean that others aren’t entrepreneurs. In fact, quite the contrary. What it means, though, is that our job is to identify and connect with students who might not normally see themselves as entrepreneurs, help connect their hopes and dreams and ideas to the concepts of innovation and entrepreneurship, and show them the ways in which we can help them achieve those hopes and dreams. 

We are starting to have some success with that. A big piece of it is who we feature. As we have people and teams go through the Project X-ITE programs, we document what those teams are doing, and spread the word on campus and in the community about our teams who are successful. We have found, and this is particularly true in the male-female arena, that as we have more teams that are led by women, and more students on campus who see teams led by women, that success builds on itself. 

Pipeline is a second key component for us. We’ve had some success in building partnerships with local high schools. If we’re doing our job at Project X-ITE, students will decide to come to the University of Denver because of Project X-ITE. We can shape the population, not just of students that we currently have, but the population of students that we will have in the future. 

One more thing that has been helpful for us is language. We have found that the word “entrepreneur” resonates within certain populations. It resonates most within the population of men in the business school with high SES backgrounds. If we are interested in diversifying Project X-ITE, and we are, then we have to find ways to connect with people who might not use that word to describe themselves. 

I can’t say that we have found the perfect formula, but the word “innovation” or “innovator” seems to reach populations that “entrepreneur” or “entrepreneurship” does not. Particularly, for example, within the School of Social Work, where a lot of students there are perfectly willing to see themselves as innovators. For some reason, they do not see themselves as entrepreneurs, even though that’s exactly what they are.

Bouchard: Do you influence the make-up of student teams for diversity or do teams come together organically?

Katz: This is a really great question. Let me preface my answer by highlighting the importance of the teams our students form. This importance became clear to us during the design process for Project X-ITE. In that process, in addition to involving students, we tried to involve the folks who will hopefully hire our students or fund them once they get out of school. We asked them, “What do you need from the students that we are producing?” 

One of the themes that emerged blew us away. Folks in the community said, “You do a good job of preparing students in terms of their skill sets, both their hard skills and their soft skills. Students come out with a lot of subject matter knowledge. They come out really capable in many many ways. What you could do better is to produce graduates who are really good at forming and participating on teams.” 

We took that as an opportunity because, as you point out, one of the things that’s inherent in student entrepreneurship is that students form and work in teams. What we realized is that there’s a huge opportunity for us in terms of helping students think about how they’re forming their teams and how they’re operating on their teams, and using that as part of the educational experience that we are trying to create.

Historically, our teams have tended to form organically. Within that frame, we’ve tried to get our students to be more mindful about how they form their teams. For example, one of the things we do in our incubator is to run programs that do personality testing to help students identify what their strengths and weaknesses are and what a more functional team might look like. 

Additionally, because of the cross-disciplinary nature of X-ITE, we will often say, “Your team looks like a bunch of engineers and computer scientists. Might it make sense for you to involve someone else?” Their response is typically, “Yes. We clearly need a business student and maybe a marketing student.” Then we can push gently and say, “Have you thought about an English major or a Philosophy student or a music student, someone who will add a more creative dimension to your team?” We’ve tried to educate our students about team creation and formation. 

On the team-building front, I’m really excited about a new program we just piloted, called Ascent. This is for teams that graduate from the accelerator program. It’s competitive to get into. Ascent provides the team that succeeds with some money to hire student workers. Ascent does two things. One, it provides opportunities to students on campus (the student workers) who might not otherwise have gotten involved with Project X-ITE. Two, it gives the team the chance to build leadership and management skills. 

A key part of Ascent involves experts in our mentor network who specialize in team development, team building and building strength on teams. This sub-group of mentors agreed to mentor the Ascent teams. It’s been terrific! We pitch Ascent as converting people from Founders to CEOs, which may be a bit of an overstatement. But it does seem to convert people to the most effective team members that they can be.

Bouchard: Do each of the teams in your 10-week Pioneering Summer Accelerator follow the same program as a cohort? Do you modify the program each year? 

Katz: Yes. Our accelerator program is called Pioneering Summer. It is modeled after Techstars, as are many of university accelerators. That was its starting point. It has definitely evolved. We have now run Pioneering Summer for three years and each year it has evolved. We try to be good entrepreneurs, learning the lessons of what’s worked and what hasn’t, and pivoting to create the right balance of opportunities and the right level of support for our students. 

For example, for the 2018 summer accelerator, we required our students to take internships at the same time as they were going through the accelerator. We realized that wasn’t the right balance of their time. As a result, we pulled back and this past summer provided additional monetary support so that our students could not take internships and could dedicate more of their time to the accelerator. 

We also had an idea one year that we wanted our students to all to be in University based housing for the summer. We provided stipends for them to do that, but it turned out that was less important than letting them work out their own housing. These are some of the things that we’ve learned along the way.

In terms of how homogeneous our programming is, we concluded that there are certain things we want to provide for all of our teams. This includes, for example, programs on legal arrangements, programs on marketing, programs on ways of prototyping. And a handful of other programs. These programs are available to all of our teams. 

However, we also customize each team’s opportunities around their needs. We’ve been able to do that in a lot of ways, but the way that has been most exciting for us has been through the mentors network that we’ve developed. We now have about 200 mentors in a segmented system where the mentors provide very specific things. For example, as a mentor in the legal realm I’ll take calls from from a teams on legal questions, such as how to form an LLC or how do to deal with an employment agreement. 

The expertise within our mentor network has allowed us to create customized pathways through the whole accelerator program for the teams as each of them need. And being located in Denver, we’ve been able to connect our accelerator teams to folks in their own market segment who can provide a lot of terrific advice. 

Bouchard: For those accelerator participants who are seniors and for all Project X-ITE program participants who graduate, how do you engage and leverage your alumni entrepreneurs? How valuable is the alumni community and why?

Katz: Our alumni are absolutely invaluable. We do not view graduation as some magic moment where you were in our environment and now, bang!, you’re out of it. We conceptualize this as an ongoing system of tiered learning and mentoring. We’re starting to create this environment within the incubator and there’s an element of it in our accelerator too. There are teams that are more experienced and teams that are less experienced. The goal is that the more experienced teams and students will mentor the less experienced teams and students. 

This accomplishes two things. 

  • One, it clearly helps the less experienced folks in many ways. They can learn more easily from people who are closer to them, closer to their experience, than they can from someone like me, who in some ways is far removed from their experience.
  • Two, it helps the mentors. By mentoring and teaching, the more experienced teams learn in ways that they would never be able to learn if we hadn’t cast them in the roles of mentors and teachers.

Our approach to alumni has been then to continue that tiered mentoring concept beyond just the seniors or the grad students, into the folks who have graduated. This works out easily because our teams tend to be mixed. Our student teams will often involve people who have graduated as well as people who have not yet graduated. 

What we have also done for people who have recently graduated is to make clear that, “You are still welcome. You can still use our spaces and still use our resources if, in exchange, you are willing to play that role of ongoing mentor.” That’s worked really well. We’ve only been at it a few years so it’ll be interesting to see what happens as people get farther out from graduation and further into their companies and their careers. So far, our sense of community feels like it extends to our recent alumni. I look forward to extending the breadth of that community to include people who started as students but are now further out in their careers.

Bouchard: At the Lean Innovation Educators Summit, I met Werner Kuhr, Director, Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Colorado School of Mines, with whom you have built a partnership with DU. A number of universities of course are looking to have cross University partnerships for collaboration. What are the criteria and elements that need to come together to make those university-to-university partnerships work?

Katz: Traditionally, universities have seen themselves as being in competition with each other; competition for students, competition for jobs, competition for faculty. The key to partnerships is figuring out where there is overlap of interest and where the competition feels like the non-salient part of what you’re doing. 

That’s worked out for us really well in two different ways. First, early on at Project X-ITE, and it’s like what you do at TrustedPeer, we formed a group of University entrepreneurship leaders from the 20 or so schools in our region that are working on similar things. The group is called CUIC, Colorado University Innovation Council. We meet regularly to talk about what our issues are and to learn from each other. 

Second, is our relationship with the School of Mines. This relationship started because, in addition to being the executive director of Project X-ITE, I am also the University’s Chief Innovation Officer. And in that role, I have tried to form networks of folks in similar roles so we could learn from each other. (There are not that many of us.) Werner and I started in similar roles right about the same time, and we said, “We ought to find a project that we can work on together.” 

The School of Mines was able to hire a faculty member named Sid Saleh who had been working for the University of Colorado and who had built while he was there a really cool course called Hacking-for-Defense (see interview with Pete Newell, co-founder of theHacking-for-Defense program), where teams of students work on problems, mostly for military branches but also for other federal agencies. 

At the same time, I really wanted to build these types of opportunities for students within Project X-ITE. We have a number of students who may not want to form their own companies, but who want to build an entrepreneurial or an innovator’s mindset by working on cross-disciplinary teams solving interesting messy problems out there in the world. Hacking-for-Defense looked like a perfect opportunity for us to dip our toes in those waters. We’ve since expanded that concept quite broadly into a set of courses called Xperiences. But Hacking-for-Defense was our first foray into that world.

At the same time, what Mines was thinking, and this goes back to your team building question, “How do we build effective teams to solve these problems if we’re limited to people who primarily have engineering backgrounds, which is very much the School of Mines population. Werner and Sid came to me and asked, “Could we partner in terms of putting on this class offering and build teams that are most likely to be effective and to succeed in the Hacking-for-Defense environment?”

It’s been a perfect partnership for us with the Colorado School of Mines.

Bouchard: Earlier this fall, I interviewed Pete Newell, co-founder of Hacking-for-Defense and one of the sponsors of the Lean Innovation Educators Summit where I recently met Werner and Sid. Scott Shrake at Colorado State University, another TrustedPeer interview, is also offering their inaugural Hacking-for-Defense course in the spring of 2020. There’s great interest and great success with Hacking-for-Defense. 

Katz: The way I think about our work is that there are two tracks for helping our students develop an innovator’s mindset.  The most obvious track is to let them form their own companies and support them along the way as they build their own companies. We call this our Start-Up Track. 

The other track, our Careers in Innovation Track, seeks to capture folks who want to have careers as innovators, even if they don’t currently have a company of their own or that’s not their thing. Modeled on that Hacking-for-Defense platform, we’ve built a series of programs we call Xperiences (everything we do has to have an X in it). Xperiences is cross-disciplinary student teams doing these types of projects for companies in our local and regional ecosystem. And those have just been a wonderful success as well. 

Bouchard: What are your current challenges and how do you plan to address them? 

Katz: We are incredibly lucky being a latecomer into this world, to have been able to learn from the lessons of so many of our peers in this area. As a result, we have avoided several pitfalls that I’m sure we would have encountered if it weren’t for the very generous help and advice that folks out there in this community – folks that TrustedPeer has helped pull together here. 

One of our current challenges is making sure that we are reaching as many people as we can on our campus and getting the word out to them. It’s tempting just to say, “Gee, if we send out an email newsletter people will read it.” Some do, though not that many. We continue to face the challenge of making sure that we are reaching as many students as possible and, as we talked about earlier, as many diverse students as possible across campus and then also attracting them to campus. 

However, our biggest challenge at this point is scaling. Our accelerator program is our flagship program for 18 to 24 students. It’s awesome. But I would love to be able to scale that up to serve more of our students. The issue is that you can’t really scale within any one accelerator program because, if you have more than 8 teams and 24 students, you would lose something distinctive about the program. So my goal would be to run multiple accelerator programs.

We’ve been thinking about putting on more accelerator programs over the course of the year instead of just during the summer. Maybe we could run multiple accelerator programs over the summer. I love the types of very specific programs that Techstars has started to do. And we saw a model at Babson College that I absolutely 100% want to steal. They run an accelerator program that is specifically designed for female run companies. I would love to start something like that. 

The question then is how do we take a series of very successful experiments and proofs-of-concepts and start to scale them so that many more of the students on our campus can benefit from them?

Bouchard: Can you share any decisions that you have made as an ecenter director that you would advise other universities to avoid? 

Katz: We had a lot of trouble conceptualizing who we wanted to be. And that, in turn, has caused us to struggle with what we want from our executive director. We’ve gone through a couple iterations on this. 

The first person we had as executive director was Erik Mitisek, who was the Chief Innovation Officer for the Governor of Colorado. Erik is one of the most amazing, best networked, most energetic people in the world. As the inaugural director of the entrepreneurship center here at DU, he was exactly what we were looking for. But as X-ITE evolved, Erik recognized that it might be important for our next executive director to have more of an academic background, particularly if we wanted that person to be able to navigate the faculty and the University systems. As we set out to find Erik’s successor, we realized that we needed someone who is university savvy and university-based. 

Initially, we thought that this meant we were looking for a faculty member to be our next director. But how many faculty members do you know who have started their own businesses? We came to the realization that it’s best to have someone with both skill sets. But that individual is quite hard to find. 

The lesson learned is to try to make sure that we strike the right balance between entrepreneurship and academics because we are an academic based entrepreneurship center.

Bouchard: There’s a new generation of entrepreneurship center directors who are both educators as well as entrepreneurs who also have prior entrepreneurship center management experience. Is there a suggested or recommended tenure for an entrepreneurship center director? 

Katz: It’s a great question. It depends a little bit on the stage at which you are. We’ve progressed in two or three stages and each calls for a different skill set. The skill set that’s needed may limit the amount of time that a director should serve, because the necessary skill set is going to morph over time. That is particularly true if you are being entrepreneurial yourself and you are constantly changing and pivoting. It’s like asking how long should someone be CEO of a startup company. The answer is: until the startup needs the next thing. That’s the way that I would look at it.

In my case, I was brought in for something very specific: to help us identify our next chapter and, therefore, help us identify the skill set that we would be looking for in the next executive director. Also, to help embed us in a good and productive way within our university’s ecosystem so that our next executive director has a strong platform and base of cooperation across our campus that they can build from, and a strong set of of community members who are excited to support us and our students. 

When I went into this, it was very much with the idea that it was it time-limited. The concept was to build a foundation that would allow us to hire our next truly excellent executive director. We’ve accomplished that.

The answer to your question about me and how long am I going to do this? The answer is hopefully you will see a job description for our next executive director within the next month or two. I’m really excited to help bring that person on and launch them here. 

Bouchard: What would you advise university ecenter directors who are just starting their entrepreneurship center and programs?

Katz: The most important thing is to have a clear-eyed view of exactly who it is you want to serve and what it is you want to accomplish. You need to think about what is distinctive about your community and your student population and how those two things intersect with each other. 

It’s easy to look at successful entrepreneurship centers and say, “Gee, I want to be that.” For example, when we were getting started, we went and visited the absolutely wonderful program at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo (see interview with Dr. Jonathan York, founder of the CIE at Cal Poly), and we learned a whole lot from them. But as we looked at them, it was really clear that they have, in addition to their various other missions, a huge community development mission. Whereas, for someone like us in Denver, and our mayor may shudder at me for saying this, the last thing in the world they need is one more University trying to help with community economic development. Your mission needs to fit your environment. 

The key in starting up an entrepreneurship center is to think about who your stakeholders are and what your mission is relative to them. You’re going to constantly change and pivot anyway, but if you can start from a baseline of at least having a clear sense of who your stakeholders are, what they need, and where you can provide value to them, that sets you 10 steps ahead. 

The tempting alternative, which will slow you down, is to set up something that’s more cookie-cutter, or something based on another program that looks very cool but isn’t tailored enough to your community in terms of its needs.

Bouchard: Marty this is fantastic. I can’t thank you enough for all of your insights and look forward to sharing your interview with the TrustedPeer Entrepreneurship Advisory network. Thank you.

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