Sometimes we can wind up in a place that we never expected to be. That's what happened to me.
In May 1978, I was awarded my PhD in U. S. History from the University of Texas at Austin. I had begun interviewing for positions as an Assistant Professor of History. I had already published six referred articles in history journals and expected to be teaching history in some university. So how did I find my calling in teaching entrepreneurship?
That May, I also got a call out of the blue. Al Dale, who was chairman of the Computer Science Department at UT, asked me if I wanted to undertake a special project to help write a retrospective of one aspect of the science and technology agreement between the U.S, and the then Soviet Union called "Application of Computers to Management." The project was a cooperative agreement between the two countries to examine how managers used computers to make decisions and involved both academic studies and practical applications in various kinds of organizations. I told Al that I really knew nothing about computers or management, that my expertise was in environmental history. But he argued that my research and writing skills were essential to the success of doing the report. He also emphasized that this was strictly a temporary position, that there was no permanent job, that the project would end in twelve to fourteen months. But the opportunity to do the report, travel through Russia, and begin to learn a whole new area of study and practice was just too interesting to ignore. So, I took the job thinking that I could always go back to finding a position in a department of history somewhere. That never happened. Instead, I set out on a path that lead to a very different job, an unexpected career and a meaningful calling.
One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken. The Traveler in the poem comes upon two roads diverged in the wood. Since he could not travel both, he opts for one keeping the other for another day, thinking he might come back to it. But he doesn't. "Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back." I didn't.
I passed up all the time, work and preparation that I had put into a path in history, as another path took me in an entirely different direction.
Way led on to way for me. George Kozmetsky, the dean of the business school at UT and the son of Russian immigrants, read the report and invited me to join a new research institute he was starting in the Graduate School of Business. This seemed fascinating to me. So I became a research assistant studying start-up and emerging businesses. Again thinking that if that did not work out, I could always teach history. Instead, I began teaching management and marketing, and enjoying it.
When the unexpected comes knocking on one's door, how does one respond? When a way emerges, does one pursue it?
For me, one way lead on to another, and I got farther away from that original path that I thought I would be traveling.
I had friends and colleagues who argued that I was making mistakes--that I should not stop interviewing for history positions to do the Russia project, that I should not go into the business school, that I was wrong to try to teach management and marketing, that I was on the wrong path. But I was finding this journey interesting and engaging.
As ways emerged, they saw roadblocks. I saw that the path appeared "grassy and wanted wear."
Then in 1985, the new dean of the UT business school, Bob Witt (who would go on to become president of the University of Alabama) asked me to start an entrepreneurship program for the Graduate School of Business. I had been doing research on entrepreneurial companies, writing books about how entrepreneurs start and grow companies, and organizing national and international conferences on fast-growth enterprises. And enjoying it. And way led on to way.
In addition, entrepreneurship proved to be the ideal area for me to help develop because no entrepreneurship discipline existed at the time. There were no text books on entrepreneurship; no doctoral programs granting degrees in entrepreneurship; few materials to present in class; and little theory and practice related to teaching entrepreneurship. In other words, a perfect area for someone with a degree in history to begin to develop a program. In fact, only a handful of business schools were beginning to recognize the role that entrepreneurship might play in their curriculums. So the field was wide open for experimentation and innovation, and someone from the outside.
The field was so embryonic at the time that academics from disciplines as diverse as marketing and management on the one hand and chemistry and history on the other were moving into it.
Starting a new discipline in a traditional business school environment posed a challenge. Some in other academic disciplines argued that entrepreneurship could not be taught and did not belong in the curriculum. Two developments helped me overcome the obstructionists.
One was a person. Bill Cooper was a renowned scholar. He held two academic chairs--in management and in accounting; had been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in economics; and had been chairman of the departments. He championed the new discipline of entrepreneurship, and became a stalwart supporter of research and practice in new venture development. It was hard for traditionalists to argue against him.
The second was an event. When I agreed to build a program in entrepreneurship, Dean Witt thought that I should start by eliminating a business plan competition that a group of MBA students had started called Moot Corp. It was part of class that was floundering. Instead, I asked to run with it, and Witt let me do it. I raised $25,000 to conduct the first national business plan competition in the country by calling on key people and organizations that I knew, and got the support of Michael Dell, Joe Aragona at Austin Ventures, Ron Kessler at Jones-Day, Ron Garner at Ernst & Young and George Kozmetsky at my Institute. Then I called colleagues at Harvard, the University of Michigan, Carnegie-Mellon, Purdue and UNC Chapel Hill, and conducted the first national Moot Corp competition. The following year, the program went international with the London Business School and Bond University in Australia. The entrepreneurship program suddenly had visibility and credibility. We were off and running. And way led on to way.
Frost ends his famous poem by pointing out that the traveler had taken the road "less traveled by." I suppose I did.
The title of Frost's poem though is the road not taken. I have reflected on that. I also suppose that if I had stayed with my original path--the one that might have resulted in a calling in history--that I would have enjoyed that as well. But I don't know that for sure since I never went back to that original path.
What I do know for sure is that way continued to lead on to way for me taking me to places that I never expected to be as I became committed to researching, writing about and teaching entrepreneurship. That certainly "made all the difference" for me. I had found a calling.