Every year, the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business picks a leader in the business community to serve as an interim staff member and professor.  The role is called the Fritzky Chair, named after Ed Fritzky, who originally founded the program.  The Fritzky Chair spends one school year as a visiting mentor and professor to the students, staying on campus an average of five days per month, and sharing his or her real world knowledge and experiences with the students.

For the 2013-2014 school year, Neal Dempsey served as the Fritzky Chair.  This interview was about his experience in the role.

What’s it like to be a visiting professor to a top university for a school year?

I’m not really a professor.  I was asked to share my experiences with entrepreneurs and help them discover innovation and innovative thinking.  Business school is not what it used to be.  To meet a new world that is fueled by start-ups and innovation, the UW and many other schools are gearing more of their programs towards entrepreneurship and innovation studies.

The UW started focusing on entrepreneurship in the early 90s, so they were pioneers in this area. It took a better part of 20 years to transition the school from a traditional MBA and undergrad program to a program that is ready for the 21st century way of doing business.  Seattle is a hotbed of innovation and technology, so it made sense to experiment in this city, but there was a lot of resistance in the beginning, as is always the case when change is necessary.  The school had to go through a few deans to get the vision right.  Buildings had to be updated to accommodate a new way of learning with technology and collaboration.  But now we have the Arthur W. Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, and it’s an integral part of the UW education.  In fact, most students are required even as undergrads to start a business before they graduate.

Going back to a group of young students and helping them to become entrepreneurs challenged me, even as a seasoned professional.  It stretches your abilities to be on the cutting edge of the next generation of thinking.  They learned, but I learned a lot too.

Why did the UW ask you to be the Fritzky Chair?

I guess they asked me because I’m somewhat active on the advisory board and they wanted put me to work.  I was somewhat cautious when Dean Jiambalvo asked me because of the fabulous job my predecessor had done.  He set the bar very high.  I almost turned the role down, but in the end, I thought it would be a great challenge.

How did you envision your time at the UW in the Fritzky Chair role?

I knew there would be time in the classroom and time mentoring students.  The program was supposed to serve the MBA students only.  But I have a special place in my heart for the undergrads, so I decided to include them this year too.

Why did you want to include undergrad students?

A great number of the undergrads I’ve met over the years are interested in starting businesses.  Many have already started a business and are trying to be an entrepreneur and a student at the same time.  However, undergrads have had less real world experience than the MBA students.  In addition, their responsibilities are generally less than the MBA students (not married or parents yet, aren’t working a full-time job).  This freedom and youth makes them more willing to be crazy and take risks.  They’re imaginative and present ideas that are really outside of the box.  I like that kind of unfettered creativity.  Besides, I only earned an undergrad business degree, so they’re my peeps.  I need to support my people.

How did you get started?

I tell the entrepreneurs I work with that the key to being a good leader is to be a good listener.  So I started by listening.  I met with the business school professors, staff and the heads of departments to get ideas and understand how I could complement the curriculum with my business world experience.  I also spent time with the students to understand what would be most helpful to them.  From there, I built a plan.  The requests and ideas I received were overwhelming, and I walked out thinking, what have I done? I’m never going to be able to do all this!  But that’s the typical feeling of anyone who is starting something new.  So, I prioritized the best ideas and the ones I thought I could actually pull off.  That’s how things got rolling.

What kinds of activities did you end up doing as the Fritzky Chair?

Of course I did spend time in the classrooms and mentoring students one-on-one.  But I felt the most valuable thing I could do for the students is give them a chance to interact with some of the best and brightest from Silicon Valley.  I brought my network of entrepreneurs to the UW via a series of CEO panels.  Silicon Valley CEOs took time out from their busy days to come to the University of Washington and share their experiences first-hand.  Some of the topics included “embracing change and learning how and when to pivot”; “the art of failing”; “an insider’s view of the IPO and M&A process”; and we did an innovation symposium for a half day, focusing on the design process.  The students were asked to re-invent a common process using design thinking, as explained by some of Silicon Valley’s top innovation talents.  That was our most popular session.

What surprised you?

The students were so engaged and knowledgeable about business.  Even the undergrads were curious and many had real, solid experience in business.  In their time at Foster, the MBA students had really blossomed into business executives.  They were a confident group of advanced students who knew what they wanted and where they’re going. The questions and observations they posed in the classrooms and mentoring sessions were extraordinary, and I had to put some intellectual elbow grease into it to find worthy answers.  In the end, I was surprised that the students challenged me to raise my game a bit more than I expected.

What was the hardest part?

Having a day job and being a stand-in professor was sometimes overwhelming.  I was afraid I would do a mediocre job at everything or be less effective than I normally am at projects.  But if you push yourself, you’ll often find out you can do it, and it did work out.  Nothing fell apart.  Most importantly, the reward for all the efforts was seeing the students grow so much this year.

What was the most rewarding part?

The most rewarding part was when the students stumped me, and I didn’t really have an answer. I had to dig into the mental archives to come up with useful guidance sometimes.  It certainly wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be.

Some of the faculty were brutal in their feedback to me.  I hadn’t been schooled by a teacher in many years, so I was a bit taken back by the direct constructive criticism.  It was like my essays were getting redlined again.  However, that’s what red-lining is for – to correct and improve.  The feedback helped me be better, which was good for the students.  That was really what the professors wanted – for the students to get the very best instruction possible.  I admire the faculty for being such powerful advocates for their students.  Now I appreciate how tough it is to be a professor, especially to such bright and observant students. It’s not an easy job.

Given my busy schedule, I wasn’t always able to make it to every class.  I attended on class via Facetime, and trust me, that wasn’t any easier.  They were still in my face….virtually.  I guess that’s why they call it “face time.”

What’s your favorite memory of the time there?

The ending Fritzky banquet and dinner was pretty fun.  All the previous Fritzky Chairs showed up – probably to laugh at me.  It’s a pretty intimidating group as they’re all captains of industry, and I’m honored to have been asked to serve in the first place. But the real memory was the students.  They are our future, and what a bright future it appears to be.

What advice to you have for mentors who want to do something similar?

Working with entrepreneurs and students is one of the best ways you can give back and share your success.  Be prepared to totally engage.  It will be worth it.  Help them think about their business strategically.  Help others learn how to hire, raise funds and all the things you have to do when starting a business.  Be part of a mentor program.  You can be broad or give specific advice to each student.  Both or either really make a difference.  Start an entrepreneur support group in your area if you don’t want to affiliate with a university.  There are many ways to share your knowledge.  Just find one and do it.  Your good advice is needed and the kids and entrepreneurs today deserve the best.

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