Elaine Chen is the Cummings Family Professor of Practice and the Director of the Derby Entrepreneurship Center at Tufts University. Derby Entrepreneurship Center develops an entrepreneurial mindset and skill set among students, alumni, faculty, staff, and community members at Tufts.
Chen formerly spent 17 years as Founder and Managing Director of ConceptSpring, a company that helps corporate leaders make their organizations more entrepreneurial via innovation consulting services and custom training programs.
We spoke with Chen as part of our IL Member Spotlight series, which profiles our members.
Is there someone you especially admire as a role model creator, inventor, innovator?
I have had the good luck of having a lot of amazing people who mentored me along the way. But one of my mentors – he recently passed away – his name was Jerry Zindler. He was an MIT graduate, and then he co-founded a company called Design Continuum, which is now called EPAM Continuum. And he was this incredible inventor and an unbelievably creative person who was always curious about everything. He was constantly finding new ways to do things, and just had this immense curiosity to learn up until the end of his life.
What do you know about innovation now, that you wish you knew when you first started?
In my original role, I graduated as a total nerd, and then I went into my first startup believing technology was everything. I was wrong. If I was to go back in time, I think the first thing I would have told myself is “you need to start with people.” I did not learn user-centered design until I got into the workforce, and I feel like that’s something everyone can afford to know… Just understand that you need to talk to humans, in order to really figure out the problem that you’re trying to solve, and who it is that you’re trying to solve it for.
I think a second thing I wish I would have known, is having this entrepreneurial mindset. We’re now trying to teach our students that it’s okay to be wrong. You don’t have to over analyze. You don’t need to know everything. Speed is more important than the quality of output in certain situations…in the beginning. When you’re just trying to experiment and learn, the speed of learning is more important than getting everything perfect.
Is there a piece of advice you’d like to share?
When you’re starting a new venture — whether it’s an internal startup in a big company, or for a stand-alone startup or a nonprofit — look at the problem you’re solving in the context of the whole system, and understand how much of the problem you’re solving. Because otherwise, you may have achieved 99 percent of improvement on 10 percent of the problem… So I think just understanding the whole ecosystem and then choosing wisely is essential – where do you want to play?