Professor Thomas Lyons: Spreading Entrepreneurial Spirit at Baruch College
Now in his fifth year as the Field Family Professor in Entrepreneurship at Baruch College, Thomas Lyons is continuing to bring the lessons he's learned from the entrepreneurial world to Baruch undergrad and grad students. His particular interest is in social entrepreneurship. This relatively new field seeks to address social and environmental problems that neither the government nor private sector has managed to tackle. For Lyons, it has spurred the development of courses on the theory and practice of social entrepreneurship at Baruch College; the authorship of several books, including a soon-to-be-released master's-level text on social entrepreneurship; and even an official entrepreneur coaching system currently running in several mid-west and southern states. Indeed, Lyons is a busy man.
What attracted Lyons to the professorship at Baruch was knowing it would allow him to make the switch from public policy, a field he worked in for many years, and to apply his skills and knowledge of the business world toward entrepreneurship, something he was already very excited about. "I thought, 'this is like my dream position.' I was actively looking for an open-minded institution that would be willing to bring in someone who knew about business and community development to teach entrepreneurship and social/community development-related subjects that may have been missed in other business courses here, " says Lyons, who moved to New York from Louisville, Kentucky.
Of course, to many, entrepreneurship is not something that's necessarily "teachable. " Lyons agrees that business savvy and a bit of luck are key to most successful ventures, but what the classroom can give students, he says, is an introduction to the concepts, mindset, tools, and processes needed to truly get an entrepreneurial project off the ground. "I'm a big believer in giving a good theoretical base that allows students to start thinking about how to apply them [theories], " he says. In his classroom, students look at real case issues and ask pertinent questions like, what kind of social/market potential does this idea have? Is this issue sustainable –- can it last? How do I build this venture structurally, money-wise, and human resource wise? Then, using various tools, they assess whether there's a real entrepreneurial opportunity and what can be done with it.
Lyons continues to see entrepreneurship at all stages, through the coaching system he helped develop several years ago, and through his students. Within the coaching system, entrepreneurs are classified into categories much like baseball players: rookies, single-A's, double-A's, triple-A's, and major leaguers, depending on their level of skill. The entrepreneurs are then mentored through three tiers of coaching: one-on-one, within their specific leagues (peer groups), and community coaching, which brings all participating levels together. Lyons has also heard from several students who have taken his courses and gone on to start social enterprises of their own. He describes two such ventures: an organization to help inner city youth get access to resources that help them get into college, as well as a joint café/learning environment focused on teaching children to cook healthy foods with the social mission of fighting childhood obesity behind it.
"I think a lot of students feel they first need to go out into the world and make some money. But [entrepreneurship courses] give them the ideas and tools they need to make a business plan and come back to it later on, " he says. And now that such entrepreneurship programs and competitions have really begun to capture the attention of students hoping to start their own businesses one day, Lyons' endeavors are sure to continue to influence their growth here at Baruch College.