What Entrepreneurship and Going to College Have in Common

Three Lessons My Son’s College Experience Reinforced About Being an Entrepreneur

Four years ago, my son Nick started the long process of considering what college to attend. He had to think about what criteria he would use to select a school to what he wanted to study and even what the ‘going to college’ process really was. All he knew at the beginning was that he wanted to go to college.

So he just stepped into the process and a year later, the living room was filled with boxes, overflowing with bedding and clothing, printers and school supplies, and various sundry items that would make a dorm room more like home.

Today Nick is a senior and has had the opportunity to learn from professors, fellow students, textbooks and lab work. He has also had the opportunity to work at three well-known companies as an emerging electrical engineer. His enthusiasm, really his passion, for his chosen field is evident in how he speaks of his work.

As I am now in Texas visiting him at his summer job I can’t help but think back through the numerous steps my son took to choose both a college and a profession. In doing so, I realize that in many ways, he and I have been on a similar path. At the time he started his college process, I started the process of rethinking my business and brand.

Here are some lessons I discovered about why the entrepreneurship and college experiences are so similar:

1. They’re both roller coaster rides, terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

And this is true from the very start. If you’ve gone through the college admissions process yourself or with a child, sibling, cousin, etc., you know what I’m talking about! The college application and acceptance process is exhausting, frustrating, and disappointing while, at the same time, filled with hope, optimism, determination, and excitement. And it seems often to be the start of four more years of the same!

Sounds familiar, right?

That’s exactly the description of what starting, managing or rebranding a business is. For any entrepreneur, just as any student waiting to hear about acceptance into a favored school or, once enrolled, waiting for an exam grade, there’s a whole range of emotions. There are days when you are more upbeat, more innovative, or more productive. And there will be days when you seek quiet, just want to do what you most like or know, or take some time for yourself.

Yes, you will have good and not-so-good days. And, it’s okay.

2. What you want isn’t necessarily what someone else wants.

As I went through the college admissions process with my son, I had him look at the schools most familiar to our family — smaller liberal arts schools. I eagerly took him on college visits to small, bucolic upstate New York schools where I envisioned him as a student. He knew that but he didn’t want that. His list of schools to visit was quite different!

My son’s ultimate choice was Virginia Polytechnic Institute (known as Virginia Tech, or, in our neck of the woods, simply as VT). It was nothing like the smaller liberal arts schools I, my husband and daughters had attended. Statistics alone were overwhelming. VT is a huge school with almost 30,000 students, so many dining options it’s tough to remember them all, and a 66,000 seat football stadium. Nick was excited to be at a big school and eager to study a STEM curriculum.

Now after 3 years, it’s pretty clear that my son knew exactly what he was looking for; every time I speak with him — and struggle to understand the engineering concepts — I am reminded of this fact. His interest and excitement in his work just pours from him.

Here again my son’s college experience reflects an entrepreneurship lesson that has to always be kept in mind. As business owners, we tend to believe we know what others want based on our research, what is good for us or because we’ve got the experience.

Truth be told? We don’t know what’s best for our customers or clients. They do.

We just need to listen and trust.

3. “Clear eyes, open heart, can’t lose.” *

As an entrepreneur it’s easy to fall back upon what we perceive to be our most valued set of skills, knowledge and experience. It’s easy to build or run our business on the premise that others will value these, too. For some who do, it can be wildly successful.

But customers come and go, market demands shift, and we, ourselves evolve as business people. For that reason, we must be ready, and willing, to approach our work and business with a fresh set of eyes, keen hearing and open mind each and every day. We must listen to those we seek to help and can’t assume that our brand, products, or services are of value to them and will continue to be in demand. So we must trust in what we hear from others and see in their actions. We must take it to heart and make changes in a thoughtful manner. If we do, we can’t lose!

But here’s the tough part: as we make those changes we must also seek to find what we ourselves most value in this transition because our fulfillment will fuel how we ultimately help our clients and gauge our own well-being and success.

I’ve taken these three lessons to heart. I now look forward to going to Virginia Tech. I feel at home on its campus walkways and I’m learning some valuable lessons from my passionate son, the electrical engineer. I have also sought greater awareness within my work which has been a huge part of my commitment to rebranding my business to better serve those I most want to help — and me, too.

It couldn’t be at a better time.

*Coach Taylor, Friday Night Lights

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