Mary Lou Song: A Silicon Valley entrepreneur on startups, Medill and media innovation

Medill alumni in media innovation: One of a series

I sat down with Mary Lou Song (BSJ ’91), a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Medill adjunct lecturer, to discuss her journey to entrepreneurship, her MSJ course “The Business of Innovation,” and why she thinks the Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship master’s degree prepares students to be future media leaders.

Mary Lou Song: “I think Medill’s community is really special. All of us are lucky to be a part of it, so when someone asks you to give back or to work with students, it’s so easy to say yes.”

What was your path to becoming an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley?

When I got out of Medill, I worked as a journalist for a couple of years, and a bunch of college friends decided we would move to California just on a whim. I didn’t have a job, but I thought, “Let’s just go and figure this out.” I started working at a law firm, and all of our clients were technology companies. I was super curious about what all these companies were doing. I was lucky enough to work for a partner who had graduated from Northwestern as well, so she absolutely didn’t mind all of the questions I was asking. It just wasn’t something I had been exposed to a lot.

When I think about my path, it was really all of my Medill training that taught me to be really curious about any sort of company and then what do they do. By the time I got out of graduate school, I knew that I was interested in technology, shopping and community. I was lucky enough to find a company (eBay) that had all three of those things. That was really the start of my career as an entrepreneur. Ebay was just a few people. That was just a really exciting place to be, and I absolutely loved it. That was what started my love of entrepreneurship.

How did you get involved with teaching at Medill?

It was actually one of my Medill professors. I must have been gone about five or six years when he called. It was a professor, Roger Boye, who I had known since I was 17 when I attended Cherubs (the National High School Institute summer journalism program for high school students). He basically just opened that opportunity for me to reconnect with Medill. He made me want to give back to the Northwestern community. He was the first professor who I ever met at Medill, and it was really just perfect that he was the one to ask me to reconnect.

I think Medill’s community is really special. All of us are lucky to be a part of it, so when someone asks you to give back or to work with students, it’s so easy to say yes. For me, Medill is this really great touchstone to go back to.

Tell me about “The Business of Innovation,” the class you’ve taught twice in San Francisco to Medill MSJ students in the Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship Specialization.

When Rich Gordon said that Medill was launching this innovation and entrepreneurship program, I thought it was really great. Plus, I couldn’t believe there was going to be this San Francisco experience attached to that because I had always said that Medill prepares you for being an entrepreneur, and when you’re thrown into a different environment, it tests you. I was thrilled he had students here to actually apply the learning.

He asked if I wanted to teach the course, and I said, “What’s the goal?” He said it’s really to teach the business side to our students and that means, “Do they know what it takes to get a company up and off of the ground?” I thought well I’ve only done it six or seven times, so this is actually great.

As a professional, you’re always running around like crazy. You’re running a mile a minute. You’re building companies. You’re networking. You’re meeting people. You’re testing products, and you’re building products. It’s crazy. I think I had forgotten just how much I knew and that I could share with students. At the very least I could say, “Listen, don’t waste any time doing it this way. Do it this way. You’ll save yourself a lot of heartache.” That has been a real joy.

Mary Lou Song leading the Business of Innovation class in San Francisco. (PHOTO / Rich Gordon)

I’ve heard the course described as a mini-MBA. What do you think about that?

I love that. I’m thrilled our students describe the course that way because that’s really what I wanted to create, which was just this confidence in each of our students that they could tackle the business side of innovation and feel like they understand that language, the goals, the challenges, and they’re comfortable with it. Our goal is to make sure every one of our students is comfortable with speaking that language and being able to fully participate in conversations about the business side of innovation.

“Our goal is to make sure every one of our students is comfortable with speaking that [business] language and being able to fully participate in conversations about the business side of innovation.”

Why do you feel that knowledge is particularly important?

When you look at the C-suite of any company, those positions are always held by people who can speak that business language. I believe that Medill students can absolutely function at those levels, succeed at those levels and participate in corporate America at those levels. This course — this program — is meant to ensure our students feel comfortable with technology, products and customers but also with finance, data, analytics, marketing, strategy and everything that has to do with running the business.

What business experience do you believe you are bringing into teaching this class?

I think it’s an aggregation of those startup experiences and those business experiences that I’m bringing to the table. They’ve all had a commerce, social networking or media angle. I think it is just that quantity of companies that I’ve tried to get up off of the ground and the variety of success and failure levels. There’s enough there that I hope someone else can learn from it all.

You’re on the advisory board for the NUvention Web+Media entrepreneurship class. What was it like seeing the first class of MIE students progress from San Francisco to the demo day for that class?

I absolutely loved it because I think the San Francisco experience really gets the students’ juices going. Their brains are being charged in wonderful new ways. You can see that everything clicks, and they are ready to just run. In San Francisco, those students were on fire with how much they were learning and how much they were immersing themselves in the city, technology and innovation. They were talking about problems that needed to be solved and how technology could do that. They were ideating. They were brainstorming. They were really learning to be entrepreneurs. To see them go from San Francisco in that immersive learning experience to actually practicing everything at NUvention was wonderful because they got to apply everything.

About the MSJ Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship Specialization

Medill website | Video | Sign up for Medill Media Innovation newsletter | Rich Gordon’s guest column (Entrepreneurial Journalism Educators Network)