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Paul Gollash: Lessons from CBESP

Last month I traveled to Rio de Janeiro for the VIII Congresso Brasileiro da Educação Superior Particular (CBESP). The conference brought together 400 education professionals from around the world to explore the intersection of higher ed, technology and entrepreneurship in Brazil today.

I was invited to speak (in Portuguese!) about innovation, entrepreneurship and startups, and my own story about building Voxy—the first “spark” of an idea, the first brainstorming notes, initial user-testing with paper prototypes in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the experience of recruiting a team, and enduring painful rounds of financing. I also spoke about why I believe Brazilian startups are in a unique position to thrive right now. Here are some of the key takeaways from my talk:

Six Characteristics of an Entrepreneur

  1. Creative: Lots of people think creativity only applies to artists, musicians and writers, but it’s really about the desire to build things, to bring something to life.
  2. Adaptable: Nothing ever works out the way you want—nothing. On the one hand, you need to be confident in your vision; but you also need to listen to feedback from the market, changes in technology, your users and your investors.
  3. Resourceful: You have to find a way to do something with nothing. In the beginning, you’ll be on your own with few resources, and no one in their right mind is going to want to help you out.
  4. Persistent: Mia Hamm said: “A winner is that person who gets up one more time than she is knocked down.” Being an entrepreneur is about running (quickly) into walls, and picking yourself back up again… Only to run into another wall. You do this willingly and proactively, but with the confidence that you will overcome and win in the end.
  5. Collaborative: Being an entrepreneur is a social job. You have to love people: talking to people, learning from people, working in groups. Great things are rarely  accomplished by individuals; building something great takes great people working together.
  6. Persuasive: As an entrepreneur, you’re always selling—morning to night, 24/7. You’re selling your ideas to investors, recruits, customers, teammates, the press and the public. Everyone has their own style and there’s no right or wrong way to sell, but you also can’t avoid it.

Why It’s Technically Easier to Become an Entrepreneur in Brazil Today

While the grit and other essential traits of entrepreneurs haven’t really changed, it is, technically speaking, easier than ever to become an entrepreneur today.

  1. Decreasing cost of technology: Since 1980, the price of software has dropped 99.3%.*
  2. Increased job mobility: 91% of millennials expect to have 10-15 jobs in their lifetime.**
  3. Increased access to capital: There were 13x more venture investments in Brazil in 2012 than in 2008.***

How Higher Education Can Foster a Culture of Innovation

At the conference, I was speaking to a room full of academics—professors, deans, faculty directors—and more than anything, they wanted to know how they can help their students build entrepreneurial skills. While many like Peter Thiel are resolute in their conviction that formal education is overrated, or at least has a high opportunity cost, my own educational experience made me a perfect fit for the CBESP audience.

I went to college and graduate school, worked hard and did pretty well. I still use a lot of the skills that I learned in business school, including statistics and probabilistic math, structured thinking, hypothesis-driven problem-solving and operations science. And I definitely benefited from the time I spent learning to interact with and lead a smart group of peers. Based on my experience, here’s what I think post-secondary institutions can do to help students explore entrepreneurship.

  1. Teach practical skills, like web development and digital marketing. Students need skills they can use on the job and actively apply to new problems.
  2. Encourage practical work experience. Students will have a chance to test out potential career paths and gain hands-on experience they won’t find in the classroom.
  3. Create networking opportunities. Bring employers directly to students by inviting them to campus events. Students will have the opportunity to interact with professionals in the field, ask questions and learn what employers are looking for in new hires.
  4. Help students discover what they’re passionate about. When we pursue subjects we care about, we’re more motivated to seek out innovative solutions and inspire meaningful change.
  5. Don’t be afraid to rethink curriculum. Make a commitment to reevaluate your current academic offerings, and consider providing new educational opportunities that will prepare students for today’s global economy.

Paul Gollash is the Founder and CEO of Voxy.

Paul Gollash is the Founder and CEO of Voxy.

In the end, it’s about persistence and passion. Here are some words of wisdom from Sir Richard Branson, one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and one of my mentors: “The best advice I could give anyone is to spend your time working on whatever you are passionate about in life.”

Want to learn more? Check out Voxy’s featured article in Linha Direta (Portuguese).

*dug campbell, 2015, http://www.dugcampbell.com/falling-price-technology.
**CNN, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/20/opinion/drexler-college-graduates.
***MIT Sloan Management, G-LAB, 2013, https://mitbrazilventurecapitalstudy.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/mit-brazil-vc-study-2012-2013.pdf.