Stanford Tech-Entrepreneurship Course Imparts Real-World Insights and Skills

By mvpena | January 9, 2015

The course Engineering 145 at Stanford University examines the fundamentals of technology entrepreneurship as practiced in Silicon Valley and similar regions of innovation around the world. Often called “E145,” the course is open to all undergraduates at Stanford, of any major, and admits from 40 to 60 students per class. The course is offered three times in the autumn and winter quarters for Stanford students, and when the academic year ends, E145 is taught again as a Stanford Summer Session class that students from universities around the world take for credit.

E145 is taught by different instructors each quarter, so the course focus and activities vary. In the fall, it is taught by Stanford Engineering Prof. Tom Byers, who stresses the inclusiveness of the course and the comfortable-but-intense workload. He says what makes E145 unique among the many entrepreneurship-related courses at Stanford is that it carefully examines the entire journey of a tech venture. (See his full syllabus.)

“It fits completely with our job as educators to take students and transform them into leaders,” said Byers, faculty co-director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), the entrepreneurship center in the universityʼs School of Engineering.

Housed in the school’s Department of Management Science & Engineering, STVP is a lab for creating and delivering courses, performing research and developing tools and programs to accelerate entrepreneurship education at Stanford, across the country and around the world.

E145 certainly opened Wade Morgan’s eyes to a new realm of possibilities. Having grown up in what he described as a low-income environment on the East Coast, Morgan said the thought of a career in high tech used to be as remote as Silicon Valley was geographically to his home state of New Jersey.

However, Morgan actively seeks out new challenges and opportunities for growth. He applied and got into Stanford, joined the men’s basketball team as a walk on, and after completing all that’s required for his political science major, started taking courses such as E145 to learn more about Silicon Valley’s vibrant innovation ecosystem.

Morgan said that studying the entire journey of tech entrepreneurship in E145 has put the much-hyped startup success stories in the press in perspective — and even made them seem attainable.

“I was empowered to know that I don’t have to be the person who is coding away to still lead a company. I can lead it with my vision and with my passion,” said Morgan, who has accepted a sales-and-marketing position at LinkedIn that starts after he graduates this spring.

In Winter Quarter, E145 is taught by Chuck Eesley, an assistant professor in management science and engineering whose learn-by-doing approach has prepared his students well. In class, they identify a real-world entrepreneurial opportunity, recruit and assemble a team of classmates, gather resources, develop a business plan and execute on their idea.

“The way the class is structured really facilitates organic learning both in the team and from speakers,” said entrepreneur Trent Hazy, who took Eesley’s E145 course in 2011. “The classroom setting was really helpful for me because I knew I could try and fail and learn and push my limits in a safe environment.”

Hazy now occupies a suite in an industrial building in San Francisco’s chic south-of-Market area, where he serves as CEO of MindSumo, a recruiting-based startup he co-founded in 2012 that uses real-world challenges to match college students to relevant companies.

“Especially now, I’m three years into a business, and I’m thinking about scaling,” Hazy said, “and had we not done the case studies and done the deep learning in those areas in E145, I would be totally clueless right now.”

Erin Parker, another Stanford alum taught by Eesley, took his class to heart: She treated her team’s project, not simply as an assignment, but as an actual business that she would work on full time after graduating in order to be self-sufficient.

While the business she worked on in E145 was completely different from the one she now runs, Parker said the biggest takeaways from the class proved to be essential for her tech venture today — a health-and-fitness company whose first product is a strength-training app called Spitfire Athlete.

Spitfire Athlete

Spitfire currently has more than 50,000 registered users, and Apple has featured it on its App Store’s Health and Fitness page for months. Parker, a national-level Olympic weightlifter, said the lasting effect of E145 is that she never forgets the importance of talking to customers regularly, prototyping a product before shipping it and testing out assumptions.

“It’s really the skill set of learning how to discover opportunities, and then take those opportunities and form them so that they’re this great product or service that people really need,” said Parker, who also taught herself to code while earning her degree in economics at Stanford.

In keeping with STVP’s efforts to accelerate entrepreneurship education around the world, E145 is also taught to learners globally as a Stanford Online course by Eesley. And each summer, the course is taught by management science and engineering lecturers Tom Kosnik and Rebeca Hwang.

Occasionally, they see a Stanford student or two in their class. But mostly, they teach to a room full of international students, who also form teams and work on tech-venture projects based on entrepreneurial opportunities they see back home.

Kosnik and Hwang are well suited to teach E145 with an international slant. During the academic year, Kosnik teaches the popular, longstanding course “Global Entrepreneurial Marketing.” And Hwang — with her unique Korean-and-Argentine background — was a co-founder of YouNoodle, which grows global entrepreneurs through a network of startup competitions.

“The process of startup creation has a lot of parallels with the way you plan your own career and life journey,” said Hwang, now a lecturer in management science and engineering at Stanford. “A lot of the concepts and tools that we teach throughout the class can be applied to planning your career — and that’s pretty much universally applicable to any major, to any career orientation, to any country.”