Inspiring Big Thinking

January 31, 2012


Kimberly Jenkins
Senior adviser to the president and provost for innovation and entrepreneurship
Kimberly Jenkins '76, Ph.D.'80
Chris Hildreth

Kimberly Jenkins '76, Ph.D. '80 has one of the most interesting titles at Duke—senior adviser to the president and provost for innovation and entrepreneurship. She works to foster and connect entrepreneurial initiatives across the university. Jenkins is the former president of the Internet Policy Institute and the founder of Highway 1, a corporation focused on helping the government take better advantage of information technologies. Earlier in her career, she created Microsoft's Education Division and ran market development at NeXT, a technology start-up company founded by Steve Jobs. Here, she talks about the philosophy behind her current assignment.

What do we mean by the terms innovation and entrepreneurship?

I have come to define these terms in a pretty simple way. Innovation is the creation of new ideas. Entrepreneurship is taking those new ideas and turning them into a product or service or venture.

Is there an entrepreneurial personality?

People who are best at it are risk takers, but it's a very qualified risk: They've done their homework. They don't just throw new ideas into the world; they understand who their end user is, and they go through a process that's very detailed. They're persistent, even relentless. Part of the entrepreneurial process is that you often fail. So if you run into a brick wall with your idea, you have to know how to pivot and try something else. Some of our best entrepreneurs earn money and celebrity. But really they do it because they're passionate about making a difference and making an impact.

There's a widespread stereotype of the lone entrepreneur, right?

In classes at Duke where we teach entrepreneurship, a lot of it involves teams that coalesce around an idea. Most people, when they think of entrepreneurs, think of the lone individual working away in a garage. Well, 99 percent of the time, it's team-based, and the best teams have the most diverse groups of people—engineers along with thinkers in the visual arts, sociology, public policy, law, and so on.

You mentioned risk-taking as a component of entrepreneurship. Is Duke structured to reward risk-taking?

Entrepreneurial initiatives
Entrepreneurial initiatives: Jenkins meets with engineering students at DUhatch, a business incubator that connects enterprising students with faculty and industry mentors.
Chris Hildreth

Our faculty members encounter failure all the time in their research; they have hypotheses that don't work out, and they adjust. I was a Duke student, of course, and I know that students haven't necessarily taken a lot of risks to get here. More and more, it's a carefully calculated route, from the courses they take to the extracurricular activities they line up. Then when they're here, their ambitions beyond Duke may mean the same traits get reinforced.

But many students are shifting away from the traditional paths of banking and consulting and are looking to entrepreneurship. And the students we draw in general are wellrounded. They have leadership ability, they have vision, they're sociable, and they are team-oriented. I think a big part of entrepreneurship is having fun with the ideas and the process and with the team that comes together around the venture.

Is it hard to get students who may not lean in that direction to embrace entrepreneurship?

Part of what we can do is to put a spotlight on our alumni entrepreneurs and encourage them to serve as role models for this next generation. I just concluded a series of meetings with some of those alumni. There's already a lot of buy-in to this idea.

How do you balance the interests in commercial entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship?

Actually, it's more a matter of seeing this as a continuum than a balancing act. We already have world-class social entrepreneurship at Duke. Many of the skills for being successful as a social entrepreneur are the same skills that are needed for being a successful commercial entrepreneur. There are differences, but at their core, with both kinds of ventures, you've got to take the idea out of your head and into the world. When you're in a social venture, you still have a bottom line. You have to be able to achieve it, to measure it, to communicate your successes, and to pivot when you're not meeting your objectives.

Can you imagine the Research Triangle turning into another Silicon Valley?

What you have in Silicon Valley is a density of serial entrepreneurs and investors. You collide with or bump into people, wherever you go there, who are starting up a new venture, funding a new venture, or looking for the next idea. Here we do not have the same number of venture firms by a long shot. We do not have the same number of serial entrepreneurs, people who have done a company, say, three different times. Still, we are rich in intellectual capital. We have a lot of the raw materials, but we haven't been all that intentional about making something with those materials. It's going to take time.

You have the unusual background of having worked with both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. What did you learn from them?

My experience early in my career was with both of them at an early stage in their companies. I got to see the common theme of an incredible passion, along with the relentless hard work that goes into making a start-up company successful. A lot of people think somebody just comes up with a great idea and, with some tweaking, everybody jumps on board. That's not true; it's incredibly hard work. And both of those individuals were among the hardestworking people I've ever been around, as were their teams.

Steve Jobs felt that technology was just a tool. It was a tool to enable people to build beautiful photographs, to listen to beautiful music, to make movies, to communicate in a document, all of that and more. He broke new ground in all of those platforms because he came from a liberal-arts background; for him it was about the intersection of liberal arts and technology.

What was most memorable about your interactions with Gates?

With both of them, I was allowed to be ambitious and to take risks. I started the education division at Microsoft, and Bill Gates approved that because I was willing to quit if that's what it took to make it happen. I didn't know any better; I just felt that if I couldn't set up the division there, I'd go find someplace where I could. And he loved the idea that I was willing to put my job on the line and just go for it.

And Jobs?

Once I was on a company retreat, and Steve said something like, "Tell me a story from your life when you were losing." And he just loved this story. When I was in high school, I was a track runner. Back then there weren't any track teams for girls, so I was on the boys' track team. I never won a race. Not only didn't I win, I always came in last, except for the final race, which was on my home track. That was in my senior year, and I set out to beat one boy. It's the last few yards, and he is being cheered on by the fans: "You gonna let a girl beat you?" He took off like hell—no, he's not going to let a girl beat him. And I reached out and I grabbed his shirt, and I pulled him back. So I crossed the finish line and beat that one boy.

Well, I was disqualified. And I'm not advocating cheating. But I wanted to win so badly, and the opportunity was right in front of me. And the story has become part of what I see as a fundamental tenet of what you need to be an entrepreneur. You might lose every race, but you have to have the ability to keep getting into the race and the ambition to go for the win.

This interview was conducted, condensed, and edited by Robert J. Bliwise.