We’ve all heard the adage “those who can’t do, teach.” While the popular saying is an easy way to make fun of teachers and put down teaching as a profession, a better phrase might be: those who do well at teaching, can also succeed at doing other things.
Some people praise successful business entrepreneurs for bucking the trend and “rebelling” against a more traditional education path. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates both dropped out of Harvard University. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College, then traveled around India and studied Buddhism before founding Apple with Steve Wozniak in 1976.
These famous examples make it seem like the best way to succeed in business is to reject higher education. However, people pay little attention to successful entrepreneurs who started out as teachers themselves — and how their teaching experience propelled them to start their own businesses and launch their own companies.
Entrepreneurs Who Started Out As Professors
There are actually many entrepreneurs who used to be professors. Here are just a few well-known people who went from teaching to achieving success by starting their own company:
- Lynda Weinman — From 1989 to 1996, Weinman taught digital media and motion graphics at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. In 1995, she published one of the first books to discuss graphic web design. Also that year, she started an online training library for web design, Lynda.com. In 2015, her company was acquired by LinkedIn for a whopping $1.5 billion.
- Jack Ma — After graduating from college, Ma became a lecturer in English and International Trade at Hangzhou Dianzi University in China. Ma started building websites for Chinese companies and formed the I.T. company Alibaba Group in 1998. The global tech entrepreneur is now one of the richest men in China with a net worth of over $40 billion and also one of the wealthiest people in the world.
- Craig Venter — Following the completion of his Ph.D. in 1975, Venter was a full professor at SUNY Buffalo in New York. In the late ’90s, Venter led the first team that sequenced the human genome. In 2010, he created the first synthetic cell. Venter is now executive chairman of three companies: the J. Craig Venter Institute, Synthetic Genomics and the science health firm Human Longevity.
- Jeff Sandefer — After attending Harvard Business School, Sandefer followed in his father’s oil-drilling footsteps and founded Sandefer Offshore in 1986. Four years later, his company had already earned $500 million. Then in 1990, he began teaching at the University of Texas in Austin as a part-time professor in the Graduate School of Business. During his time at UT Austin, he was named one of the top entrepreneurship professors in the country by BusinessWeek. In 2002, he left UT to co-found the Action School of Business, a private graduate school where professors must have a background in entrepreneurship or management.
The Positive Impact of Academic Entrepreneurs
Behind the scenes, many academics are already leading innovation efforts in a variety of industries. Recent reports show that the number of patents, licenses and spin-off technology and science companies created by those in academia is steadily increasing. Some entrepreneurs have started companies while working towards full-time professorship. By embracing an alternative-academic career path, they’ve discovered the benefits of being both an academic and an entrepreneur.
“I never found academic and entrepreneurial activities incompatible. In fact, I believe they go hand-in-hand,” says Javier Garcia-Martinez, chemistry professor and co-founder of Rive Technology. “Spinning off your research forces you to think more broadly and creatively, and to solve technical issues that would not necessarily emerge within a smaller-scale lab environment … Such hands-on experience can open new doors to academics, helping them secure industry funding, for example, and also collaborators.”
Garcia-Martinez goes on to say that teaching as a professor is not at all detrimental to his business prospects.
“Staying in academia … has been very beneficial to my career as an entrepreneur,” he states. “It has allowed me to keep abreast of the most forward-looking results in my field, think more broadly and critically about how to transfer my technology, develop new science that could lead to new business opportunities, and identify and recruit new talent. Academic entrepreneurs can have a real impact on society.”
Why Teachers Make Successful Business Leaders
Professors who pursue entrepreneurship might have different motivations. Some see themselves as teachers first — and then seek out freelance work because it often pays better than an adjunct or part-time professor salary. Others are entrepreneurs who love to teach and want to share their business knowledge with students.
Either way, professors have an immense number of skills that startups, nonprofits, large corporations and even government agencies need in the workplace today. Professors excel at communicating their ideas in a thoughtful and compelling way. Teachers are natural leaders who motivate students to do their best on a daily basis. Teachers also understand the importance of learning, questioning what you think you know, and seeing blind spots in a student’s findings and research. All of these skills can be applied in both the classroom and the boardroom.
Succeeding in Academia and the Business World
The landscape of higher education has changed significantly over the past two decades. At colleges and universities in the U.S., the trend of hiring adjuncts or part-time instructors instead of full-time professors is on the rise. For professors, it’s often in their best interest to consider opportunities beyond academia, which doesn’t have to mean giving up teaching altogether.
This new crop of academic entrepreneurs is showing that it’s possible to succeed in higher education — and also make beneficial contributions to the business world. In many ways, adjunct professors are already free agents, and it’s time for them to start thinking about their career in academia in a different way. Along with the adage that “those who can’t do, teach,” there’s also the assumption that teaching is a poorly-paid profession. The emerging cohort of academic entrepreneurs proves it’s possible to get paid well for your research and expertise. Teachers can do a lot — as long as they recognize the skills and strengths they bring to the table.
A Valuable Resource for the Emerging Academic Entrepreneur
Inside Scholar is a resource for adjunct professors, part-time teachers and any educator interested in learning how to succeed in the business world. Inside Scholar also connects small businesses, companies, and nonprofit organizations with highly-skilled and experienced professors. Keep reading Inside Scholar for more tools, resources and information about trends in academia and entrepreneurship.