As I seated myself among more than 100 established or would-be entrepreneurs at the Badger Startup Summit at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Friday, I began to conduct my own unscientific poll. Motivating me was an article in The Wall Street Journal two days earlier about a recent study by Ross Levine and Yona Rubenstein indicating that entrepreneurship seems to be linked with mischievous tendencies such as shoplifting, marijuana use, skipping school, etc. as a teenager.
Of course, I wasn't going to grill my fellow attendees about their adolescent slip-ups, but I did strike up several conversations with folks, asking why they'd embarked on their own entrepreneurial journey. As you can imagine, the answers were all over the place, but in the end there did emerge one common denominator -- their student experience at UW-Madison!
To be honest, I wasn't totally astonished by this revelation, for reasons I'll mention later. And the members of a Badgers Coast-to-Coast panel I moderated later that morning quickly reinforced this conclusion. To a person the four panelists admitted that something happened to them while they were on this campus -- a professor, a course, a club, a mentor, a network -- something that helped give fuel to their entrepreneurial energy and propel them to success.
As I listened to each of them tell their stories, and observed the rapt attention of the more than 100 people listening to them, I again reflected on the unique nature of this 165 year-old university. Since its early beginnings the University of Wisconsin has fostered a sprit of entrepreneurship. From the discoveries of Vitamins A and B in the early 20th century to first cultivation of embryonic stem cells in a laboratory in 1998, creativity and innovation have been at the heart of the UW's greatness.
And perhaps the best thing is that the nearly half a million UW living alumni pass this along to other Badgers, much as these four were doing in their panel on this sunny August morning in 2013.
I don't put a whole lot of stock in the Levine-Rubenstein study, as I'm sure they won't place much credence in mine. But who's to say that there aren't special places like this where entrepreneurship just happens? I was again reminded of that when I saw the ads for the new film Jobs opening that day.
One of the major entrepreneurs of our lifetime, Steve Jobs's biological parents met as students at UW-Madison. Coincidence?
Maybe not . . .