A Conversation With Len Schlesinger, Babson College President

LenS-Post.jpg If you peek into the offices of most college presidents, you'd likely see framed diplomas and family photos, leather bound books, and maybe a plant or two perched on the windowsill. Len Schlesinger, president of Babson College, has all these things too, but he also has one thing those other presidents don't: a huge cartoon collection covering his walls. Schlesinger has brought his sense of humor to his many careers, ranging from his very brief stint as a law student, a corporate executive with several well-known companies, various positions in academia, and now as the president of Babson College.

In his current position, Schlesinger is working to bolster the entrepreneurial spirit among faculty and students at his school, which is home to a relatively large number of startup projects and innovative ideas in the fields of sustainability and design. ThinkLite LLC and IdeaPaint, for example, were both started in Babson College dormitories. Here, Schlesinger discusses why Steve Jobs and Apple belong in an entrepreneurship hall of fame; how the level of potential disruption in higher education is an unprecedented development; and, of course, the importance of humor.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I'm changing the world through entrepreneurship -- the most powerful force on the face of the planet for social and economic value creation. As president of Babson -- the number one school in the world for entrepreneurship -- I believe that an important part of our mission is to make the great things that take place on our campus available to as many people as possible. This is the first job where I wake up in the morning and can actually see a straight line between what I do and a better world.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on entrepreneurship education?

It is the explicit recognition of the power of action in an environment of extreme uncertainty and unknowability. We teach our students Entrepreneurial Thought in Action, which enables them to take action in the face of uncertainty. They can learn this alongside all of the powerful and deep analytic techniques that are important for a world that has more predictability in it. So we're enabling people to move beyond the natural limitations of prediction and learn how to take smart action.

What's something that most people just don't understand about entrepreneurship?

The entrepreneurial method is available to everyone. Unfortunately, people have built up myths based on the personalities of enormously successful entrepreneurs and, consequently, self-selected themselves out of entrepreneurial activity. While we're not all going to become entrepreneurs, we can all still think and act entrepreneurially.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up your field?

There is no question that the level of potential disruption in higher education is an unprecedented development. The evolving nature of technology and the ability of interactive live gaming are creating new and powerful group learning experiences. These are already having an impact and likely to have an even greater impact on post-graduate education.

What's a trend that you wish would go away?

Social policy experts that think the only innovations in entrepreneurial activity that are valuable are those that are scalable -- and their obsession with scalability -- keep lots of innovations from happening. A perfect example is the number of people who critique the failures of microfinance because of its supposed lack of a relationship to developing high-impact enterprise. Regardless of the fact that it doesn't scale to high-impact enterprise, microfinance does have an important and immediate effect on poverty.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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