“Passion” was the first word of advice from Silicon Valley presented to West Virginia student entrepreneurs and their faculty advisors. Chosen by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, the word exemplifies what motivated him to transform his hobby—building personal computers—into the world’s most valuable company.
People with passion for an idea live everywhere and every place has unique local conditions that can help (or hinder) entrepreneurs who want to turn passions and ideas into startup companies. Key to success is understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses, best practices for building a business, and what kind of ecosystem it takes to foster success. Over two days at the Computer History Museum, students and faculty were guided through activities that provided them with insights into what has made Silicon Valley a magnet for innovation for decades and how they could apply insights to their own future careers as entrepreneurs in West Virginia and beyond.
Participants in the Exponential Center’s Silicon Valley workshop activities were winners and advisors from the first state-wide West Virginia Innovation and Business Model Competition and hailed from Glenville State College, Marshall University, West Virginia Wesleyan College, and the University of Charleston. From digestible drinking straws to medical telemetry data collection and from mobile laundry services to a medical debt lottery system, students had already been experiencing the ups, downs, and pivots of developing a business idea. Their trip west was sponsored by Intuit, whose executive chairman, Brad Smith, is a West Virginian and proud graduate of Marshall University. Faculty advisors shared insights about the West Virginia startup ecosystem and plan to incorporate ideas from the workshop in future coursework.
Context is critical for deep learning. A guided tour of the Museum’s signature Revolution exhibit grounded students in history by exploring key people, innovations, and technology companies that have changed the world. From the humble roots of IBM in a census tabulating machine to the hubris of executives who dismissed the personal computer as a toy, students learned that business is all about making choices. And innovation is driven by people trying to solve problems, just as they are attempting to do with their own startup ideas.
A scavenger hunt through the exhibit allowed teams of students to explore what it is about the Silicon Valley ecosystem that helps entrepreneurs to thrive, including a culture that values information sharing and encourages employees to spinoff new companies, a skilled talent pool, and established companies, universities, research centers and professional services committed to entrepreneurship. Innovations fostered in the open atmosphere of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) and the Homebrew Computer Club contributed features and functions to personal computers and later handheld devices like Palm and the iPhone. An early Google server rack tells the story of how the internet spawned new ways to make money and the dot.com bust serves as a cautionary reminder that even online business models must be solid for a company to succeed, even one online.
With the successes, failures, and reinvention of Silicon Valley companies fresh in their minds, students were eager to hear what one word of advice veteran founders and builders had to share with aspiring entrepreneurs—a word that represented a key attribute, personal mantra, or lesson learned. Exercises were designed to help students explore the stories of the people and companies behind the words of advice, to think about how that advice could be applied in the real-world of startups, and to examine their own strengths (and weaknesses) as they consider how to build teams to turn their dreams into reality.
Thinking critically and strategically about practical advice, students then turned their attention to an analysis and comparison of business plans from the Museum’s archives. The three paragraph 1968 plan for Intel, a fully-fleshed out nearly 100 page 1977 document from Apple (authored by a seasoned advisor, not the young cofounders), and LinkedIn’s 2004 plan in the form of a slidedeck provided plenty of opportunities for identifying what was present and what was missing in each. Video clips of oral histories from the collection added personal perspectives from some of the founders and funders.
There’s nothing like meeting a role model face-to-face, and Brad Smith, Executive Chairman of Intuit, exemplifies the spirit of entrepreneurship and giving back to his community. He candidly shared personal stories and career advice in an informal chat with Intuit VP and CHM trustee Eileen Fagan, describing his trajectory as “the first twenty years trying to get away from West Virginia and the last twenty years trying to get back.” Asked to distill his years of experience into one word of advice for new entrepreneurs he chose “Impact.” What does he mean by that? Smith says: “Dream big. If you want to have a big business solve a big problem, if you want to have a little business solve a little problem. So that translates for me into the one word I have which is impact.” Smith also commented on the importance of “having a why”—a cause bigger than yourself. For him, that cause is to foster connections between Silicon Valley and the lessons it has to teach and the tough, persistent, and passionate innovators in West Virginia. It was an inspiring and powerful call to action. This workshop was an answer to that call.
The Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum captures the legacy—and advances the future—of entrepreneurship and innovation in Silicon Valley and around the world. The center explores the people, companies, and communities that are transforming the human experience through technology innovation, economic value creation, and social impact. Our mission: to inform, influence, and inspire the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders changing the world. The Exponential Center’s “One Word” project at the Computer History Museum is made possible by the generous support of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation.