In this day and age, the world is constantly evolving at an alarming rate thanks to technology. Trends are born overnight and can be obsolete within a few months. The latest trend around entrepreneurship and innovation is launching a venture; taking an idea and turning it into a operational company. And in consequence, incubators and accelerators are popping up everywhere, including in universities.
Now, don’t get me wrong, these incubators and accelerators are fantastic and there has been many success stories coming out of these programs, but I see a few shortcomings stemming from such programs. First, the scale of risk versus reward seems tipped towards the risk side. The success rates are quite low and as a student with increasing tuition payments, investing time and money into a possible venture just seems too risky for the “possible” reward. It’s not guaranteed you will succeed. Second, yes, I am a student with an entrepreneurial mind, but I don’t have a well-baked idea and I’m not ready to launch anything just yet.
What do we do with these students that have an entrepreneurial mind, like myself, but either don’t have an idea or just don’t want to dive themselves into the unknown just yet? In comes Entrepreneurial Apprenticeships. When you hear about apprenticeships, you originally think of the trades: electricians, plumbers, etc., and this model has worked great for decades so why not introduce it into academia. The concept was first introduced to me by Luc Lalande, Executive Director of the Entrepreneuship Hub here at the University of Ottawa. I personally thought and still think it’s a genius idea!
I have now been under Luc’s wing for the better part of 16 months now and over the last 8, I have been one of the first students to be part of the uOttawa Entrepreneurial Apprenticeships. After being exposed to this model for quite some time now, I can say with confidence that there is one thing above all else that has really stuck with me:
In a venture, your idea defines who you are. But with apprenticeships, YOU define who you are.
Let me explain. When starting a venture, your idea is everything to the eyes of investors and the eyes of the public. If your idea is not fully developed, selling the idea is significantly harder. As a co-founder, you get associated to the idea. You could be a very hard worker and have worked hundreds of hours on your idea but that’s all the others see, the idea. But with E-apprenticeships, since there is no idea to develop, you work on your skills. Going back, I mentioned the rapidly evolving world we live in. With this evolution, your skills must evolve as well. You have to stay up to date with the trends and this means retraining yourself, not every 5 years, but every single day. You need to keep your mind open and keep learning every single day.
Apprenticeships allow you to do just that, learn every day. Instead of being in a classroom learning theory around entrepreneurship, you are doing hands-on learning and creating your own blueprint, you are defining yourself. I’ll tell you a bit about my story.
I’m a 3rd year double degree in mechanical engineering and computer technology student. Slightly crazy, I know. I love everything open-source hardware (Arduinos, Raspberry Pis and my personal favorite, Particle Photons). I build drones out of my basement, making holes in the ceiling in the process, and much more. To really sum it up, I love to tinker and hack (in a good way, not steal your money hack). I was introduced to the whole Maker Movement a while back and I immediately saw the entrepreneurial potential of it. And so, over the summer of 2015, I experienced my very first apprenticeship-style entrepreneurship co-op at a local design firm, Design 1st, leveraging this exact technology. Here, I learned a lot about prototyping and exactly what it takes to bring a hardware product idea to market.
Fast forward a bit, upon my return to school, Luc and I started a “proto-venture” called StudIoT, a team of engineers and computer scientists that focus on Internet of Things hardware research and development. Here is where I really put the apprenticeship model to the test. It started off as a 10 hour a week gig over the Fall 2015 and I ended up doing my second co-op term with StudIoT over the 2016 Winter semester. It was the true definition of an Entrepreneurial Apprenticeship Co-op. I took the initiative to learn and do something productive everyday, I was never bored. I hired two very intelligent computer scientists to work alongside me. I managed a few client driven projects. I budgeted many internal projects and did estimates for clients. I met with many industry leading companies and individuals and even got a few job offers from it. All in a span of 6 months.
The thing is, in my program, I follow a single business course and not one social science class. Not one. To me, these classes would make the most sense, not only developing my technical skills but also my so called “soft” skills, essential skills that one day might lead to the launch of a venture.
- Time management
- Project management
- Collaboration and teamwork
These are all skills that are just not directly covered in engineering school. Working and managing StudIoT has allowed me to develop these competencies. For me, these are my rewards, expanding my skills and learning.
This brings me to my final point, apprenticeships and project based learning are a match made in heaven. An electrician doesn’t learn by simply reading a book, he is in the field, wiring up a house. He is learning while doing. Here at StudIoT, everything is project driven. With a good mix of client driven projects and internal exploratory projects, there is never a dull moment. We learn while we do. This is the direction I believe academia should take. Employers care less and less about the classes we took because they’re all the same and they’re all theory based. They care about the projects. They care about how you’ve applied all that theory based knowledge and applied it to a real world projects. But the best thing about projects is they are simply fun and way more rewarding than seeing an A+ on your grade report.