By David Perry
Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande has a golden touch when it comes to making a business prosper.
He is also blessed with a yearning to help others see the way to success.
Deshpande, a legendary venture capitalist, high-tech entrepreneur and philanthropist, co-founded Chelmsford-based Sycamore Networks, as well as several other companies, including Cascade Communications, Coral Networks and Tejas Networks.
He also co-created the Deshpande Foundation and Merrimack Valley Sandbox, through which he has championed entrepreneurship and supported programs to spark innovation in local communities.
And he’s one of the architects behind the annual Deshpande Symposium for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education, to be held June 11 through 13 at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. The symposium brings together academics, policy planners and entrepreneurs from across the globe to learn from one another how to fire up the engines of entrepreneurship for students, faculty, staff and the greater community.
Deshpande fielded a few questions in advance of this year’s conference.
Q. With all of your accomplishments as a serial entrepreneur, you’ve chosen to spread the gospel of innovation through your foundation and events like this symposium. Why do you do it? And do you wish more people who’ve enjoyed similar success were committed to working with colleges and universities?
A. The world is full of challenges that are growing in complexity, whether it is climate change or increasing income disparities around the globe. To address these challenges of the 21st century, [we] need innovative new ideas and – equally important – we need dynamic entrepreneurs to take those ideas and create social and economic impact. That future cadre of innovators and entrepreneurs is being educated and trained on university campuses. We believe investing in this next generation will assure us of a more equitable and sustainable future.
Q. Why is entrepreneurship such a popular movement on college campuses like ours, and what does it give to students?
A. Entrepreneurship provides people the option to create their own future and their own jobs, instead of relying on others to give them a job. More importantly, being exposed to the entrepreneurial mindset at an early age provides them with life skills and abilities that they can carry through in any situation – whether working at a large company, a nonprofit or at their own startup. Looking out for opportunities, being a proactive problem solver, confronting new challenges, thinking on your feet, building teams – these are just some of the skills that one picks up that stay with you the rest of your life.
Q. Can innovation be taught? What does a college with successful integration of entrepreneurship look like?
A. There are many aspects of innovation and entrepreneurship that can be documented and codified, and there are certain basics, like accounting or finance, that one has to learn in a more traditional classroom setting. However, entrepreneurship is a contact sport; you must go out and experience it. That is why colleges and universities increasingly emphasize experiential education as a key part of teaching this subject and why most successful programs also have a strong extracurricular or co-curricular component. The Deshpande Symposium Awards help highlight some of the national examples in this area and are great sources for innovative new approaches to teaching entrepreneurship and innovation, including those of our award-winning host UMass Lowell.