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Our Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

The buzz in Silicon Valley is but one example of why we invest in innovation.
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It was the morning of Friday, September 9. I walked into the Terra Gallery in San Francisco, a swank, modern space, to a room full of 500 Dartmouth alumni. The place was alive and the people energized—the buzz several decibels above normal for a group that size. As I looked around, I quickly realized I was the only one not in jeans, and for a split second I wondered if I was in the right place. But as I listened to the chatter, it was not about making money, but all about making impact, and I immediately knew I was among Dartmouth friends and right where I was supposed to be.

I was in Silicon Valley for the Dartmouth Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF), a biannual event (held once a year on each coast) that attracts alumni involved in all aspects of entrepreneurship from across the generations and graduating classes and from around the world. United by their passion for Dartmouth, they come in droves to talk about their work, network and support one another in their entrepreneurial pursuits. 

One of the things I love about this event is how it came to be. It did not begin as, nor is it today, a College-organized event. Quite the opposite: It was conceived and brought to life by Jeff Crowe ’78, a venture capitalist and managing partner at Norwest Venture Partners, in 2013. In just three years it has experienced organic and rapid growth, much like many of the businesses represented by the alumni in the room that day. 

I was amazed at the impressive cast of characters who gathered to trade insights on a wide range of topics. John Donahoe ’82, former CEO of eBay and current board chair of PayPal, shared advice with the group on how to maximize impact through leadership, while Provost Carolyn Dever led a panel featuring highly accomplished alumnae entrepreneurs who described how they developed successful careers in what is still very much a male-dominated tech world.

As I think about these two notions—leadership and women in technology—I believe Dartmouth’s role is distinct. 

Graduates today must be adept at harnessing the power of technology. They must also master those skills that remain uniquely human—skills such as emotional intelligence and empathy, creativity and innovation—and the ability to synthesize and reason across disciplines. Dartmouth, through its growing emphasis on experiential learning and its distinctive brand of liberal arts education, is positioned to do both, preparing graduates who can command technology and be adept at skills beyond technology’s reach—skills that are highly sought after in today’s world, in Silicon Valley and beyond. These are skills that make great leaders.

Thayer and Tuck, along with the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN) Innovation Center and the Digital Arts, Leadership & Innovation (DALI) Lab, are magnets for student talent, particularly young women who wish to enter tech fields. This year Thayer became the first national research institution to award more undergraduate engineering degrees to women than men. And we’re seeing numbers of women that are significantly higher than average at the DEN and DALI Lab, too. Because we’re doing so well at closing the gender gap in these areas, Dartmouth’s alumni are uniquely positioned to lead in diversifying the tech fields and to bring an entrepreneurial mindset to bear on a myriad of other disciplines.

That’s why we’re investing in entrepreneurship and innovation: to develop the creative minds of our students, to nurture their self-confidence by giving them access to the tools and mentorship they need to put their ideas into action, to build their resilience (by encouraging them to try, fail, be coached and try again) and to support our students’ desires to make a difference in the world. Providing an avenue through which students can engage in entrepreneurship and innovation, both on and off campus, is an excellent way to do all these things. 

I suspect that every one of the alumni at the forum would tell you much the same.      

The next DEF is expected to take place in the spring on the East Coast. Any Dartmouth alumnus involved in entrepreneurship is welcome to attend.   

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