Seelig has taught innovation and creativity at Stanford University for the past 15 years. She is professor of the practice in the Department of Management Science and Engineering, as well as the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. She’s a firm believe that you can teach creativity by showing people how to take risks, fail fast, and learn from the experiences. She says you can inspire people by challenging assumptions, connecting ideas, asking the right questions, and reframing problems.
Tom Byers, a professor at Stanford and faculty director at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, introduced Seelig by saying what her students say about her. One noted, “Even though she’s a teacher, she still admits she is a student.” Another said, “Tina is a leader. Not by example, but by inspiration.”
We caught up with her for a one-on-one interview at the Visionary Awards. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat: What are you up to these days?
Tina Seelig: I’m the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, STVP. I’m on the faculty of the Department of Management Science and Engineering. My specialty is teaching classes on creativity and innovation. Our program is quite extensive. We have about 35 courses that we run on all different aspects of entrepreneurship – strategy, finance, marketing, organizational behavior, leadership, negotiation, teams, creativity. We also have about 15 PhD students at any one time, the future professors, and we have a big outreach effort – across campus, around the country, around the world. We have more than 3,000 students a year in our classes.
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This part is very important. We do not view our goal as teaching folks to start companies. We are the entrepreneurship center of the School of Engineering. The focus is for students to come out being entrepreneurial, as opposed to founders of companies. Yes, they might go found companies, and a lot of them do. But we have students who go off to become neurosurgeons or lawyers. They end up as academics. The idea is that these entrepreneurial skills are important no matter what they do. It’s about looking at problems and opportunities, leveraging limited resources, and being able to bring ideas to life. We feel like that’s important no matter what your goal is.
We have our share of folks who’ve started pretty impressive companies. Many of the students who are very successful, interestingly enough, don’t start their companies right after they get out. It’s five or six years later. It’s when they have a real problem that they want to solve, when they have enough experience to realize, “Now I’m ready to launch my own venture.”
VB: I wonder if some of the very successful tech people were slackers in school or not.
Seelig: You know, that’s not my experience. It might be that they’re choosing different priorities when they’re in school. They’re not necessarily spending all their time in their classes. They’re focusing on extracurricular activities. That might be the case. If you look at them just from an academic perspective, you might think, “Wow, they’re not the best student.” But usually what’s happening is they’re spending their time on something else.
My feeling is, when students come to Stanford, they need to make their own path and figure out what their goals are and how they want to get the most out of the experience.
VB: How do you teach creativity?
Seelig: First of all, usually people ask me, “Can you teach creativity?” You jumped to the head of the line. Yes, you can teach creativity. If you came to the last class of my course this quarter, the students would all say yes. You give people a set of tools and techniques and approaches, and you help them gain the necessary mindset. Creativity is a result of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that allow you to be a problem-solver.
Teaching people how to take risks, for example. Teaching people how to fail fast and to learn from their experiences. Teaching them a set of tools for challenging assumptions or connecting and combining ideas or re-framing problems. Teaching people how to ask the right questions. One of the biggest problems people have is that if they ask the wrong question, they end up coming up with incremental solutions. If you can broaden the frame or frame the problem differently, it opens up a whole world of new solutions.
VB: It seems like a good time in Silicon Valley now, in general. Do you wind up teaching differently in good times as opposed to bad ones?
Seelig: No, actually. So many of the most interesting companies in the Valley have been born out of times when things are really rough economically. At our program, STVP, during the crash of 2008, we had a lot of risk surrounding the funding of our program. We were funded all by soft money. We get a small amount from the university, but the rest of it we have to raise from donors and grants and things like that. A lot of our sources of funding were at risk.
We said, “What’s the opportunity in this? Let’s look globally.” We ended up launching a brand new initiative that turned into a very successful global program, with partners all over the world, as a result of having to look in a different way at the way we support ourselves. We say that problems are opportunities. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. When things are bad, they’re really just different. It’s an opportunity to change the way we look at things.
VB: We talked before about online classes, putting a lot of Stanford’s resources online. What’s the state of that now?
Seelig: Our program has been involved with putting content online for a dozen years now. We have a podcast series, our ECorner series, where we’ve had several million downloads every single week. Tim O’Reilly, Tim Draper, they’ve been speakers in our series. We put all of our content online.
Personally, I’ve been experimented with online teaching, along with some of my colleagues. I’ve taught three online courses, all on creativity. They’re very experiential. They’re on a platform called NovoEd. I finished one just a few weeks ago. I partnered with Warner Bros. Records. The course was called “Creativity: Music To My Ears.” We had all of these rock stars involved. The theme of all of the projects was around music. For example, the students had to introduce themselves to the course by creating the album cover of their life.
VB: How did you guys come to terms with all the people who said this would disrupt education?
Seelig: It’s part of the entire range of content out there. I don’t think it’s ever going to replace in-person meetings. You’re sitting here wanting to talk to me. You didn’t want to call me on the phone or email. You wanted to sit here and chat with me, right? In-person interactions are incredibly powerful. We’ll never replace that. But many people we can’t reach in person. Having that opportunity to share what we’re doing online is terrific.