Harvard’s Manny Contomanolis says entrepreneurship is a mindset

Jadyn and Patrick share a sunny smile with Harvard OCS’s Meaghan Shea and Manny Contomanolis.

As a strong supporter of student entrepreneurship, Xfund works closely with the Harvard Office of Career Services (OCS), which provides students with guidance, resources, and connections to jobs, internships, and other opportunities.

At the head of OCS is Director Manny Contomanolis. Manny came to Harvard this summer after serving as Senior Vice President for Employer Engagement and Design at Northeastern University. Prior to that, he held a variety of leadership positions at Rochester Institute of Technology over the course of several decades, culminating in Senior Associate Vice President and Director of the Office Career Services and Cooperative Education. He is also a past President of the National Association of Colleges and Employers and a member of its Academy of Fellows.

Here, he discusses the Xfund-OCS partnership, his philosophy of entrepreneurship as a skillset, and the need for higher education to help all students — not just would-be entrepreneurs — develop those skills.

You joined the Office of Career Services this July. Tell me about your journey to Harvard.

I’ve been involved, most of my career, in higher education, with the bulk of that in career services and experiential learning.

What typified my experience was being very externally oriented. My work kept me connected with the world outside of the institutions I represented, and that was very enjoyable.

The “real world” became my real world in higher ed, and that kept me abreast of trends and developments in what we need to do to help prepare our learners and graduates to be successful. That’s always been a rewarding part of my career.

When the opportunity at Harvard appeared, I was greatly intrigued by working with the learners and graduates here. I was intrigued by the fact that they didn’t represent the typical kind of university student, both in terms of background and preparation, but also in terms of interests and capabilities.

I had always worked with students who were very focused on a career path — you know, “I want to be an engineer” or “I want to be a healthcare provider.” It’s very interesting — and challenging — to work with people who are very broad in their thinking, very multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary. There are so many creative ways to help them think about their career pathways. That really attracted me to this opportunity at Harvard, and I’m just delighted to be here.

How does the Office of Career Services work with Xfund?

Frankly, Xfund is a tremendously important partner to the work we do in Career Services.

It’s been invaluable to have Xfund work with us in programming efforts, in sharing their experiences and expertise, in helping students understand what entrepreneurship and building a business really is, and introducing those concepts and ways of thinking. These are young people who may have perceptions — sometimes faulty — about what it means to be successful in that space. It’s incredibly important to provide that grounding.

Effective career services offices are really good at helping students understand their options and connecting them to people who can help them through mentoring and advising.

We’ve really enjoyed the partnership with Patrick and Xfund. I think it’s just such an amazing enterprise. Their openness and willingness to educate, as much as anything else, is the vibe we’ve been really trying to tap into in our work.

Is the Harvard-Xfund relationship unique among universities?

I don’t know that it’s unique, but it is certainly distinctive. I think what’s particularly powerful about Xfund is the entire conceptualization. It’s based here, but it’s open beyond the borders of Harvard.That is far more unusual, in that sense, compared to the majority of other institutions.

I also think that in addition to helping launch new enterprises, the educational component is also distinctive and may very well be unique. The combination of that mission and the openness beyond the borders of Harvard together really makes this a special undertaking that, frankly, I think would be hard for other universities to mirror. I’m sure, for that reason alone, many are envious of what we have here.

Not all students become entrepreneurs — the vast majority won’t. How do those students benefit from that educational component?

The term “entrepreneur” is a very value-laden descriptor. It’s come to mean many things, some of which are inaccurate and misleading.

What do you mean by that?

People say, “Oh, I don’t really need an education if I only have a good idea and some backers. I’m going to be just like Bill Gates or whoever.”

But what’s lost in all that is what it takes to be effective in that space. I think that an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset have applicability far beyond the limits of just starting and running your own business.

An entrepreneurial mindset involves the ability to balance risks and rewards, analyze and determine what’s the best course of action, and partner with others to find the right combination of individuals or skillsets to achieve a goal. It also encompasses the ability to be self-reflective and understand what it takes to be successful, and to have the passion and commitment to achieve your goals.

If those are the elements of an entrepreneurial mindset, you could apply it equally to people who are freelancers, designers, or even people who work in a corporate setting who are constantly thinking, “How do I grow and expand my career?”

This entrepreneurial mindset is incredibly important. It’s what I hope to see more of, as we think about how to prepare students for success, not just when they graduate, but for a lifetime.

That’s what really excites me about the work that the Xfund is doing — that educational component, that willingness to share what makes a successful entrepreneur and what contributes to that entrepreneurial mindset.

It’s helping people think about entrepreneurism, not just as the end game of starting your own business, but rather, as the skills, competencies, and strengths to take ownership of your own success.

I think that’s what “entrepreneur” means. You’re taking ownership and you have the agency to be successful, regardless of what the setting is. That’s what really excites me about Xfund’s efforts.

How can universities support student founders — and how can they reinforce that entrepreneurial mindset in all students?

There are a number of ways. I’ll be honest and say that I think most universities fall short. But if I were describing an ideal, you would absolutely have some of the things that Xfund offers to us and this community.

First, you would have support for people with entrepreneurial ideas, where they could get the coaching and advice they need to get to that first stage of gaining support and thinking through their business plan and all the mechanics that go into launching an enterprise.

Beyond that, universities ideally should be allocating funds to invest in those enterprises that align with their institutional mission or goals. In other words, universities need to make a financial commitment to invest in the best ideas that are there.

I also think universities should serve as clear connection points with the venture capital world, to create opportunities for others with resources to connect with ideas on campus. Universities also need to create opportunities for people with entrepreneurial interests to come together and learn from one another. This could take the form of maker spaces or other places and gatherings where that creative energy can be nurtured. Harvard Innovation Labs is a great example here.

All these are necessary conditions, but they’re not sufficient. It’s also important to help young people understand the entrepreneurial pathway. If they can’t follow that pathway at this point in their lives, what are the skills that effort helped them develop, or now help them realize in themselves, that they can take to other opportunities and challenges?

I would argue that kind of entrepreneurial mindset is a key framework for success and set of skills and competencies that everyone should have, if you buy my concept that they’re applicable in almost any setting.

For universities to encourage that mindset, faculty need to understand it and communicate it through coursework, even in terms of giving projects within the traditional classroom setting that push students to develop those entrepreneurial skills. It also needs to be present in the advising and coaching students get from academic and career advisors as well as through student clubs and organizations.

It should be a constant reminder that those skills are fundamental to your success, in the same way we talk about communication skills, teamwork, and all the other professional skills you need to be successful. In the simplest terms, I’m suggesting we add “entrepreneurial skills” to that list.

Most universities just don’t think about it that way, though. They see that skill development as peripheral to the main academic enterprise.

Right, or as something that’s only for certain types of people.

Exactly. You know how people say, “Not everyone can be a leader”? I also hear, “Not everybody can be an entrepreneur.” I agree with both statements. Having some leadership skills and some entrepreneurial skills, however, will allow you to be that much more effective, even if you are not filling those roles.

What advice do you have for student entrepreneurs?

Again, fortunately we’re lucky at Harvard, because there are a lot of resources to help students pursue those interests. But as a general rule, it’s important for students with an idea like that to first make sure they understand the full range of services and support available to them.

I’m often surprised because we have so many resources, and some students will often say, “I had no idea!”If I’m coaching somebody, especially a young person, I try to ensure they’re aware of every resource we have, as well as those they might be able to access outside our auspices. That’s vital, because without support, ideas can die on the vine.

The second piece of advice I have is persistence. Sometimes people think they have a good idea, but someone else says, “Well, I’m not so sure that’s practical. How are you going to do it?” They get asked some tough questions, and they’re like, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Maybe that’s a bad idea,” instead of questioning, pushing, and looking to expand those boundaries. So, I would encourage students to make sure they really evaluate an idea before they abandon it.

And if they do abandon that idea, move on to the next one, look at an iteration of it, or turn the problem upside down. The way you approach a problem will suggest a certain set of solutions. Sometimes you have to think about the problem differently in order to arrive at a different solution. So many things have been discovered that did not serve the purpose they were intended to, but were applicable to something else entirely.

Finally, constantly think broadly. Many entrepreneurs tend to focus on a particular solution to a particular problem that they have identified, but sometimes it has to be iterative. You have to go really narrow, and then go really broad, and say “What am I missing? What are some other connection points here?”

Originally published at https://blog.xfund.com on January 9, 2022.




An established venture capital investor, Patrick Chung serves as managing general partner at Xfund.

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Patrick Chung

Patrick Chung

An established venture capital investor, Patrick Chung serves as managing general partner at Xfund.

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