The Big Ideas

Niki Peterson of the UC Davis Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on preparing future entrepreneurs

Back Q&A Jul 23, 2018 By Rich Ehisen

For the last dozen years, the UC Davis Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has fostered hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs out of the classroom setting and into the real world. Comstock’s sat down with Senior Program Manager Niki Peterson to learn how her institute is helping turn the Capital Region into a world-class incubator for innovation.

How does our region compare as an entrepreneurship incubation site to places like Silicon Valley?

Many people are calling Davis the Palo Alto of 20 years ago because of our proximity to the capital [city] and all the great technologies being developed here. We’re really well-positioned for what’s happening now in entrepreneurship and innovation. In the Silicon Valley, the technologies are mainly in and around the computer industry. Here at UC Davis, we’re always No. 1 or No. 2 in the world for our agricultural innovations. We’re also the No. 1 school in the world for veterinarian medicine and, of course, we have our outstanding school of human medicine.

How prepared are most of your students for the realities of today’s marketplace?

They’re not prepared at all. When they first come to us, they have no concept whatsoever of what that even means until they start to dig in and grapple with it in relation to their own technologies and ideas. So our programs are really hands-on. The students are challenged to answer these questions for themselves and to get in there and work very closely with our network of business partners, community members, mentors, teachers and coaches. It’s a real-life experiment, not just the textbook theoretical knowledge.

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What do you see as the most challenging obstacle for a young or new entrepreneur?

Being able to accept that their particular idea doesn’t fit into the marketplace exactly the way they think it will. They have to learn to be very flexible and take a lot of information from a lot of different sources and be open-minded about how that’s applied. They need to figure out where their technology fits best and what problem they are solving. Sometimes that reality can be hard to accept at first, but if they’re willing to go through that process and deal with the realities of the marketplace and the world, that’s where they become successful.

Most entrepreneurs fail at least once before they succeed. How do you address the reality of failure with your students? Is there such a thing as a good failure?

They’re all good. That’s why we bring in guest speakers to talk specifically about their failures, because that’s where the lessons are learned. That’s where the discoveries and the breakthroughs happen. Successes don’t prepare you to persevere — failures do. The failures show you where your weaknesses are so you can address them. Or they show you where your idea is not a fit, which frees you up to find where it does fit. So we spend a lot of time educating students that failure is not a bad thing, and that you actually have to get really comfortable with failure if you’re going to be a true entrepreneur, because it’s going to happen over and over and over again.

Being able to weave the social good into the values of their business right at the get-go is really appealing to many millennials that enter entrepreneurship.

You can’t be in business if you don’t make money, but the millennial generation also cares deeply about doing good things for the world. Have you seen this in the projects your students are undertaking?

Absolutely. These students often come in saying they don’t care about making money. They care about changing the environment or helping children or the poor. They want to make a particular thing and give it away to the people who need it most. But that’s just not possible, because you have to be able to make money to be in business. We spend a lot of time getting them comfortable with the idea that it is OK to make money; in fact, by making money you’re going to be able to help those people you so desperately want to reach. And that money itself is not evil, but is actually a wonderful vehicle that allows them to make the difference they want to make in the world. Being able to weave the social good into the values of their business right at the get-go is really appealing to many millennials that enter entrepreneurship.

Women still comprise a very small percentage of the total number of CEOs and corporate board members. What are you doing to attract more women to your program?

We have been very cognizant during my seven years here of increasing the number of women in our programs. Not just as participants, but as speakers. We provide the platform that gives women avenues to become successful, as well as to come back and interact with our programs and to tell their own stories. When I started, our three-day entrepreneurship academy was mostly taught by men, almost 100 percent of our speakers and our mentors would be men, and probably 80 percent of the participants were male. Fast forward to today: Now we have at least a 50/50 split, and we’re even looking toward a trend of 60/40 female/male split — not just for speakers but for participants and mentors. Many of our programs actually stipulate that we will reach out to and accept women into those programs before opening them up to male populations. I’m really proud of the fact that as an institute we value women in these fields and that we do as much as we can to support them.  

Your institute and the Sacramento Entrepreneurship Academy, where you are on the board, focus greatly on younger entrepreneurs. What about middle-career workers who might want their next step to be out on their own?

The skills of entrepreneurship are ubiquitous across all ages and generations. Statistically speaking, most entrepreneurs are in their 40s or 50s before they discover the thing that makes a big impact. They tend to need some world experience to go along with the skills and educational tools, because they have to wear so many different hats in order to run a company successfully. They have to be able to interact with so many different kinds of people, and have the social intelligence that comes with living in the world for so many years.

We’re actually starting to reach out to undergrads because we don’t have enough of the younger population. The majority who come through our programs now are in their 30s to 50s. They are seasoned scientists and engineers who have been working for years and now can get excited that their science could actually make a difference in the world. They come to our programs and that lightbulb goes off. They’re no longer doing science for its own sake. It actually can make a difference in the world and for their children and grandchildren.

Mentors are a valuable resource for an entrepreneur. What does someone interested in becoming a mentor need to be able to bring to the table?

I cannot say enough about the value of a mentor. Much of our view of entrepreneurship as an organization and an institute is that it’s all about the network. The idea of a lone scientist in a garage coming up with something that can save the world and getting it out there on his own is a misnomer. That simply doesn’t exist. It’s about the network and the support structure that you have around you in order to get these ideas to fruition. The ideal mentor has a basis of knowledge and truly just wants to share and give back to another entrepreneur, because somewhere along the line they got help from someone who had the knowledge they needed. So a giving spirit would definitely be a great trait for a mentor to have. As far as business experience goes, we need it all. There is no area of business or expertise that necessarily qualifies a person to be a mentor. It’s really just having that insight and knowledge of being in the business realm and understanding what it takes to get a company to become successful. 

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