Entrepreneurship is encoded in the DNA of Rebecca White, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at The University of Tampa where she is James W. Walter Distinguished Chair of Entrepreneurship. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs and have been an entrepreneur for more than 20 years,” said White, who first learned about small business as a youngster working in her mom’s floral shop in rural Peterstown, West Virginia.
White went on to earn an MBA and a doctorate in strategic management from Virginia Tech and found her way to academia before also starting companies including WhiteBoard Advising, which works with founders, business owners and top management teams throughout the business life cycle. She is currently a Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University.
Having seen entrepreneurship from a variety of vantage points, White is committed to developing and building academic programs in entrepreneurship education with a focus on competency-based education.
“As educators, we believe we can certainly make a difference and impact the lives of students with the discipline of entrepreneurship and by teaching what we call an entrepreneurial mindset,” White said. But there hasn’t been unanimity on what entrepreneurs should be taught.
“I started asking the question, ‘What should you know if you have an entrepreneurship degree?’,” she said. “While there are core sets of abilities, skills and behaviors needed in every field, we didn’t have that very well-defined in entrepreneurship.”
This realization led White to her passion of developing competency-based education for entrepreneurship.
“Entrepreneurship education has always been a pioneer, including experiential learning,” White said. “We will continue to innovate in the way that we teach and the way that students learn. Competency-based learning allows us to break up the discipline into small chunks of knowledge and use new ways of teaching, such as just-in-time learning and utilizing technology in innovative ways.”
“Competency-based learning is one of the ways we can build customized education,” White noted. “Our students are coming into university with a whole set of skills that people my age didn’t have and maybe still don’t. Our students don’t all start at the same point so we need to meet them where they are.”
Some of the skills, knowledge and abilities that White points to as integral for entrepreneurs are the ability to recognize and assess opportunities, learn from failures, use creative problem solving, be resilient and the ability to create a company culture and pull together a team to build and scale.
“As we build a discipline-wide pedagogy, it has been interesting for me to be led back to my research,” White said. “One of the abilities that we have identified as being important to an entrepreneur is resilience.”
White’s focus on understanding the role that resilience has in entrepreneurship aligns with the research of Ted Zoller, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, on developing the entrepreneurial genome.
White’s work in the Triangle is supported by a grant from the Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professorship, created by former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser in honor of former Duke president Nannerl Keohane’s efforts to bridge the two universities. Entrepreneurship is one of the areas of focus for this year’s professorship.
“Through this Keohane professorship, Ted and I found that our research aligns, and we are working together,” White shared. “The Keohane professorship is a tremendous opportunity to develop a collaborative approach to entrepreneurship learning and teaching.”
While White is able to research competency-based structures and develop models on her own, defining competencies for a discipline benefits from a collaborative approach. “Having a variety of people from multiple institutions, including my fellow Keohane professors, who add value by offering diverse ways at looking at issues, is an amazing experience in collaboration,” she said.
While in the Triangle, White has been involved with a range of activities including serving as a guest speaker in Zoller’s Entrepreneurs Lab class; meeting with UNC’s innovation committee of more than 40 faculty members, looking at entrepreneurship across the UNC campus; learning from UNC researchers about the science of teaching and learning; and attending Duke’s innovation and entrepreneurship research symposium.
“I have had the opportunity to talk to a lot of faculty and staff across campus who are involved with entrepreneurship,” White shared. “Entrepreneurship is not just in business; we see it many disciplines, including the creative arts, engineering, medicine and science programs. It has been exciting to talk with these faculty and staff to discuss collaboration and how we might together build a broader definition of what competencies in entrepreneurship look like.”
White is honored to serve as a Keohane professor. “To take my 30 years of academic and entrepreneurship background and apply it with colleagues on potential research projects that could have a big impact on our discipline is incredibly exciting,” she said. “I would love to be able to leave behind competency-based entrepreneurship as a legacy with my colleagues. And it would be cool to say that this thing that changed our discipline was launched while at UNC.”