Teaching business students how to fail

Technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, and others are going to drive innovation through the 21st century, and universities in our region are a place where many of these technologies are being developed and advanced. Matching entrepreneurial behavior with these technologies is a key issue for developing the region further, and one person on the forefront of that is Jim Liew, cofounder of tech firm SoKat and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Business School.

ABERMAN: Well a few weeks ago, you and I did a panel together and I was very struck. You’re a unicorn—a professor at a university who is also starting a business. Let’s talk a little bit about SoKat. What is your current entrepreneurial activity?

LIEW: SoKat is a small business, women-owned, and it does machine learning, AI, and blockchains, and we’re a full stack development team based out of Maryland, and the clients that we go after are in the federal space. Also asset managers, and academic institutions. And so, what we try to do is, find into the real disruptors, and we want to use technology to help disrupt industries. So, the ideal client has lot of data, and they’re looking to create predictive models, or great solutions that will help their customers at the end of the day.

ABERMAN: So, what you’re describing to me is very much what I perceive as being on the outside edge of software technology, and where we’re going. What is like for you, personally, to be engaged in an entrepreneurial activity, at the same time that you’re teaching entrepreneurship at a local business school?

Subscribe to the What’s Working in Washington podcast on iTunes.

LIEW: The good thing about actually practicing in entrepreneurship is that I can bring all these lessons back into classroom. So, I teach an entrepreneurial finance course, and I try to make it as real-world as possible, so that I can educate the students on how difficult it is to get clients, to build businesses, to build teams and so forth. I try to make it as realistic as possible. I’m of the school where I think you should practice what you preach. So, you go out there, and you get in the trenches, and actually do it, and try to scale businesses, and then bring back the lessons into the classroom.

ABERMAN: Entrepreneurship, in my experience, is very much a get-your-hands-dirty kind of activity. I’ve had people say to me, I’m sure you’ve heard this as well. that you can’t teach somebody to be an entrepreneur. I know I have my own answer for that question. What’s yours?

LIEW: Well, I think that’s a very good question. I think you can teach a lot of lessons, and experiences, and mistakes. One of the lessons I learned early on is that, every time that you get out there and you fall on your face, you have to pick yourself up. One thing about a lot of people who are not very good entrepreneurs is that they fall on their face once, or twice, or three times, and they didn’t get themselves up, and they went back to the industry, and they took their nine-to- five job, whatever it may be. But successful entrepreneurs, if you look at their lives, and you study how they do it, people fall down all the time. And so, there’s some resiliency in getting up, and I think that’s really important. Nobody has success a hundred percent of the time. Everyone’s falling down all the time.

The most important aspect is, when you make mistakes, or you get some kind of setback to your entrepreneurial career, or journey, is that you learn something. So, that’s one of the things that I set up in my class, and I give them assignments that are pretty much undoable. So, they’ll fail, and we’ll go back in the class and we’ll discuss it, and debrief it, and I try to train them to anticipate, or know, how does it feel when you fail? What are you supposed to do? You come back, you talk about it, you discuss it. What are the lessons? Why did this strategy not work? How could I have done it a different way? And there’s also, in the classroom, teams that do a good job, and then they share what were some of the ways to have success on these tasks.

So, I purposely set them up with really, really difficult things to do, and I think that’s a great learning lesson for a lot of those students. Now, there are some people who absolutely do not need to go to school to go become very successful entrepreneurs. So, it’s not for everybody. But for the people that we have in our classrooms, usually it’s people trying to transition from one career into another career. And so, a lot of people are still trying to figure out what they really, really want to do. And so, I think the classroom is a great environment to learn some of these lessons.

ABERMAN: So, I’m going to ask a hard question as a teacher. Give me an example, what’s your favorite moment for when you saw one of your students really get it?

LIEW: It’s actually pretty interesting. When you’re in a classroom, when you’re having a discussion, and you can actually see their faces, people talk about this light bulb going above their heads, right? You can actually see that. Because they’re inspired, their eyes get brighter, they get more animated. They get all fired up. Afterwards, you can tell that they learned something about it. One of the examples is, I was teaching an executive course, and there was a doctor, and this guy was a very successful entrepreneur, and he had a couple of different companies that he was running.

What we teach is that, for certain companies, a founder that’s inside there can get too emotional with a company, and make bad decisions, and pull down the company. Sometimes it’s just better to bring in a new CEO, and pull yourself away, because you get so emotionally attached to these companies, you’re not making a good, logical decision. And so, I was asking him, what were the most successful companies? He started, and it was kind of funny, because he came to the conclusion, the one that he sort of let go, and had someone else run, was the most successful. When he looks back at his career, and all the companies that he’s created, that was the best decision, to pull himself away, because he was too emotionally attached to that company.

ABERMAN: Like the old song: hold on loosely.

LIEW: Exactly!

ABERMAN: Everything I learned in life, I learned from rock and roll. Before I let you go, last question. For the policymakers and people listening, what do we need to do better, so that there are a thousand Jim Liews in this region, or ten thousand?

LIEW: Oh, that’s an easy question. There are some real thought leaders out there in the federal space, and you know, Jose Arrieta out at HHS, what we should do is just clone him a hundred times, and we should just drop him in, you know, all the different agencies, because he’s thinking about it in the right way. I think that we’ve got to push the frontier, employing technology, and we can’t be scared of this stuff. At the end of the day, I think what’s going to happen is that we can save quite a bit of money using technology, absolutely down in D.C., and we can repurpose people for more complex jobs. And some of this rote automation, technology will save a lot of taxpayers’ dollars.

ABERMAN: Jim, thanks a lot for taking the time to join us, that was very influential and interesting.

LIEW: Absolutely! Thank you so much, Jonathan.

ABERMAN: That was Jim Liew, cofounder of SoKat, and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University Business School.