Dr. Drew Harris is Professor of Management and Organization at the Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) School of Business. He is also involved with the Connecticut Collegiate Business Plan Competition. Innovation Destination: Hartford spoke with Harris about his commitment to encouraging student entrepreneurs and what he most enjoys about teaching entrepreneurship.
IDH: Give us some background information. What piqued your interest in entrepreneurship?
HARRIS: I have been interested in creating value since my childhood. Though my parents were school teachers, they gave my brothers and me resources and encouragement to find opportunities to create value.
For example, they found houses that needed rebuilding, bought them, and then provided us with funds so that we could restore them. When we completed the houses our parents gave them to us. It taught me that there were lots of opportunities if one is willing to look and work hard. They planted the notion that we could do better working for ourselves than for someone else.
IDH: How long have you been teaching at CCSU?
HARRIS: Nine years!
IDH: What courses do you currently teach and what do you enjoy most about teaching?
HARRIS: I teach a mix of entrepreneurship, business strategy, and leadership. I love seeing the lights go on in a student’s eyes when they grasp a new and useful concept. I regularly have students tell me my courses have changed their perspectives and sometimes their lives—there is not much that feels better than making that kind of contribution.
IDH: As a professor, you have some insight into what interests future entrepreneurs. Are there any “hot topics” in particular that appeal to your students?
HARRIS: There are two main groups of student interests. Many of our students come from working-class families and want to own and operate a small business that will give them control of their time and a good living—something they have seen their relatives do. These students are interested in real estate development, food-related services, retail, and other “main street” kinds of businesses.
Others want to build something bigger—invent a better product, solve some problem they see daily, create new experiences for others. This range of topics is as diverse as our students—a new online magazine, accessories for smartphones, launching devices for drones, web and mobile applications to support student success.
IDH: What do you enjoy most about working with entrepreneurial students?
HARRIS: It seems to me their motivation is higher than other students; they are thinking in concrete terms about how to make a business venture work. They perceive immediate value in the feedback and coaching I give them. I don’t have to worry about entertaining them to get them to study.
IDH: You have contributed to several publications as well as a book, Managing Quality: A Primer for Middle Managers. A central theme is management and business administration. Tell us what fascinates you about these topics.
HARRIS: I am always interested in “what works.” I have had the good fortune to be immersed in two rich streams of proven ideas that work. My family was deeply involved in thinking about how economic systems could work for everyone, in particular in expanding upon and further developing the ideas captured in the classic economics of Henry George (a famous 19th Century American philosopher and economist). His basic premise was that privileges provide an uneven marketplace and that we should either eliminate privileges or charge for privileges as a source of public revenue. Many of my publications have derived from or extended that work trying to articulate, in modern terms, how we might make a more just and prosperous society.
In graduate school at New York University I was fortunate to meet Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the father of the modern Quality Movement. He became a mentor to me, helping me perceive both what had not worked at the companies where I had previously been involved as employee or consultant and what would work if management had the courage to implement different policies. Managing Quality was a contribution of practical steps middle managers could take to improve quality and performance.
IDH: You are deeply committed to promoting student entrepreneurship. How did you become involved in the Connecticut Collegiate Business Plan Competition?
HARRIS: Soon after coming to CCSU and taking leadership of the entrepreneurship program I decided to build a network of entrepreneurs and service providers who could help our students. At one of the events I attended, I met Mike Roer, the president of the Entrepreneurship Foundation, and organizer of the Connecticut Collegiate Business Plan Competition. Mike sent invitations to me, and I started working with the more advanced students in my classes. I offered extra coaching to students who wanted to compete, and some rose to the challenge. We have great students at CCSU and sometimes all they need is encouragement. We have had a high winning percentage in this competition, maybe 75% of our entries have won prizes.
Shortly after becoming involved with the Entrepreneurship Foundation, an attorney from Shipman & Goodwin, LLP offered to sponsor an elevator pitch competition. This spring they will sponsor our 15th competition!
The Elevator Pitch Competition has become a main stay in our program, and it provides a scouting opportunity when I look for student who might win in other competitions. We also bring in external judges, and sometimes those judges become mentors to students—both for entering competitions and for starting businesses.
Four years ago, Rick Mullins, Director of the CCSU Institute of Technology and Business Development, came to me with sponsors and a proposal to run an intramural business plan competition. With his support we have run three annual competitions. This spring Stanley Black & Decker will sponsor our fourth competition.
As we have figured out how to better organize and support students, especially encouraging interdisciplinary teams, their projects have become more sophisticated and promising. These competitions have been great for helping build our program.
IDH: Have you stayed in touch with any of the award winners? If so, can you provide any updates?
HARRIS: More than half of our winners have stayed in touch. I recently had one as a student in an MBA class; he is now a product manager at Stanley Black & Decker. Like several other winners, he has been expressing his entrepreneurial energies in product development for major firms. Several students have gone into family businesses. A few have built businesses—kitchen remodeling, a couple of restaurants, junk hauling, landscaping. I am proud of all of them—their accomplishments and their contributions to our economy.
IDH: What is the best thing about living and working in the Greater Hartford region?
HARRIS: I am a bit of a foodie, with a passion for ethnic food, so I love the variety and quality of eating options in the central part of Connecticut. I like the hard-working, can-do attitude of the young people in this region, especially my students.
Perhaps the thing I like the best is the entrepreneurial community; we are not RT128 or Silicon Valley, but we are optimistic, generous, and mutually supportive. There is a great deal of integrity and energy in this community; I am pleased to participate in and contribute to this community.