Since the late 1980s, Laura Kilcrease has dedicated her life to entrepreneurs in Austin, particularly on the 40 Acres. She worked with former McCombs Dean George Kozmetsky to create the Austin Technology Incubator. She served as the McCombs entrepreneur-in-residence for the 2012-2013 school year and continues to support Longhorn Entrepreneurs.
In general, what does an entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) do?
An EIR is someone who comes from an entrepreneurial background who is put in a position to share their knowledge, wisdom and experience with not so experienced entrepreneurs. They typically work inside large institutions like universities and for-profit companies. EIRs can assist any type of startup entity, no matter if the purpose is social, civic or for-profit.
How do you personally approach your role as McCombs EIR?
When I started in August of 2012, it’s a 1-year deal, I wanted to serve the growing trend in students wanting to better understand entrepreneurial endeavors. I’m their coach, teacher and connector to accelerate the students’ experience in the areas [where] they have the greatest interest.
Another project I started was an exceptional speaker series for the UT and Austin startup communities on Tuesday evenings. of startups. Entrepreneurship Live is always a serial entrepreneur who has significant entrepreneurial success. Last year, these events attracted over 1,500 attendees.
How do EIRs best help student entrepreneurs?
EIRs, first off, focus each student’s thought process when considering their business pursuits. Second, we can expose them to courses they may not be aware of. Third, we can network them into the appropriate level of help when they need it.
You’ve been supporting Longhorn entrepreneurs longer than anyone on campus. How did it all start?
I first started supporting Longhorn entrepreneurs from the day I founded the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI), which was a UT-Austin organization that helps entrepreneurs commercialize advanced technolgies, in 1989. So I have 25 years of enhancing the collective power of the University and our community through startups. Back then Austin wasn’t at the top of everybody’s list of places to live and do business; it actually had the sixth-largest amount of empty office space. Now some of my original interns are tenured professors and professionals that have gone on to achieve so much. For example, Dr. Weber, who directs UT’s energy institute. In the early days, it was just a technology incubator. After ATI, we started the first angel investor network, the capital network. Then we started the Austin Technology Council, a professional organization that represents technology leaders in Austin and promotes the advancement of technology. Before we knew it, Austin was being recognized as a global technology hub.
The entrepreneurial ecosystem at UT-Austin is obviously changing rapidly. What is your take on it all?
We need to understand this movement is simultaneously a student-demanded activity and faculty- and school-administration-driven activity. When the powers of these two groups converge, UT-Austin will witness some real combustion in our entrepreneurial activity. As with all combustion, we want it to be focused and directed, ultimately resulting in positive results for society.
Do entrepreneurs need to graduate from college when we have examples of people like Michael Dell, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg who all dropped out?
I believe graduating from college broadens a student’s skill set for the future. It is a recognized standard of accomplishment. However, it is always a question if entrepreneurs need to graduate. There are people like Dell, Gates and Zuckerberg, but they are few and far between. By graduating, students are only enhancing the choices they will have. Today, we anticipate we will have more than eight distinct sub-careers per person because of the changes we’ve seen in the US job landscape towards a knowledge economy. During the times of Mr. Gates and Mr. Dell, people expected one major career in life. So education is now about creating choices and earning potential for the future.
How can the University best further encourage entrepreneurship on campus?
Entrepreneurship is a ubiquitous subject that has a broad knowledge set by nature. As a consequence, it does not reside in just one school. It should reside in all schools. Nor is it age or experience restricted from undergraduate on up. Therefore, we should create more cohesiveness in our entrepreneurial teachings such that when the press mentions student entrepreneurship … UT-Austin is the clear leader in entrepreneurial education. What starts here changes the world … Right?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Spiller is a rhetoric and writing senior from Michigan and the former director of the Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency.