Drownproofing 2.0

Georgia Tech graduates who are at least my age (or a little younger) will remember “Drownproofing.”

Drownproofing is a technique developed in the 1940s by legendary Georgia Tech swim coach Fred Lanoue when the U.S. Navy sailors and officers were dying after survivable ship sinkings — because they didn’t know how to swim! Lanoue worked out a method to exploit the human body’s natural buoyancy so that you can float for hours. (The trick: keep your face in the water, and only break the surface to breathe. It works, but you need coaching and experience to do it right without panicking.)

For decades, every Georgia Tech student had to take a quarter-long course in drownproofing to graduate. It was challenging, and it was scary. We stopped requiring it in 1988, but older alumni remember it with a combination of nostalgia and revulsion. And we achieved two desired outcomes:

For decades, every Georgia Tech graduate was “drownproofed”… something the Navy could count on when recruiting officers!

And Georgia Tech graduates were fearless. After someone has tied your wrists and ankles together and thrown you into the deep end of the pool, you’re not likely to be intimidated by an overbearing boss or a looming deadline!

Some of the more curmudgeonly alumni (me!) periodically cry “Bring back drownproofing!” but the world has moved on and the liability concerns make it impossible. But our students are facing other challenges in the work world, and they need to be equally fearless. I think it’s time for Drownproofing 2.0.

Those of you who have never been part of a startup company may not realize just how scary it is… if you and your teammates don’t deliver, you don’t get paid. And many of the skills necessary to be successful in an entrepreneurial environment can’t be taught in a classroom… you have to learn them through experience. But starting or joining a startup company after graduation is a major commitment — you’re giving up the salary and security of a bigger company, you’re likely extending the payback on your student loans, and you may find out after a few years that you really don’t like the startup environment after all! Which is perfectly okay: Boeing needs employees, and so do thousands of smaller, less-visible companies. It’s important to find an environment that suits you.

But what if we could “throw students into the deep end” before they graduate? What if they could experience entrepreneurship without the “all-in” commitment demanded of a full-time entrepreneur? When neither a marriage nor a mortgage is at risk?

Georgia Tech has dabbled in this for a while. We’ve had the hugely-successful TI:GER program, but that’s limited to a handful of graduate students per year. The most recent Flashpoint cohort had a team of GT undergraduates. The InVenture Prize has generated huge engagement in three years; last year, over 500 undergraduates participated. But if you read the GT strategic plan, it’s filled with references to entrepreneurship… including Goal 3: “Ensure That Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Public Service Are Fundamental Characteristics of Our Graduates.” We need to do more.

Steve Cross, Rafael Bras, and the rest of the campus leadership are wrestling with how to engage more and more undergraduates with entrepreneurial experience while enrolled at Georgia Tech. That does not mean that we want every Georgia Tech graduate to go out and start a company — we don’t. But we didn’t want every graduate to jump off a burning aircraft carrier into the South China Sea, either.

We do want every GT graduate to understand the basics of starting a company. And maybe they won’t start a company, but they’d be interested in joining one as employee #7. Or #17. That’s very different than joining Boeing as employee #150,007. Let’s teach them how not to be scared of that.

Because we’re a kindler, gentler Georgia Tech these days, we shouldn’t tie their hands behind their back when they first encounter the cold water of entrepreneurship. There are a lot of programs already in place to serve undergraduate entrepreneurs at Georgia Tech, and more cropping up all the time. Here’s a partial listing:

Existing

  • InVenture Prize
  • Business Plan Competition
  • Convergence Innovation Competition
  • Senior Design Projects
  • Capstone Projects
  • Random Hacks of Kindness
  • Startup Weekend
  • Tech Entrepreneurs Society
  • Flashpoint
  • VentureLab

Emerging

  • Business Model Competition
  • Startup Madness
  • Startup Semester
  • Startup Co-Op
  • Techstarter

And there are all sorts of funding mechanisms, from the GT Edison Fund to the ATDC Seed Capital Fund to new proposals tied into senior design projects. It’s confusing to me. Imagine the poor student trying to navigate all this! We need to make it more coherent. And that’s where EI2 comes in.

EI2 and its predecessor organizations don’t have a strong history of student engagement. We hire students, of course, but we haven’t really taken a role in the university curriculum. But that’s about to change. As Georgia Tech focuses on engaging students in entrepreneurship, who is better positioned to help than EI2, where we work with real-life entrepreneurs every day?

(And not just at ATDC. This is going to include the MBDA Business Center, and the Health@GT projects, and some of the smaller MEP clients, and so forth. It’s going to be like seventh-grade soccer — everybody gets to play!)

I’m not going to pretend that we have all this figured out. We don’t, and we shouldn’t. I’m calling this “Drownproofing 2.0″… but it wouldn’t surprise me if it winds up with an official name entirely more polysyllabic and forgettable. As a “One GT” initiative, it’s going to live in lots of places and dip into lots of budgets. It is going to evolve, and we’re going to learn from the students and from each other. But I know that, with EI2, Georgia Tech has a unique asset that no other university can match: Not Stanford, not MIT, not Carnegie Mellon. We have everything from entrepreneurial coaches to economic developers, all under one roof, and all focused on improving the technology business ecosystem in Georgia. Now we get to expand our clientele to include the undergraduate students who have been the lifeblood of Georgia Tech for over a century.

This is going to be fun. Take a deep breath!

stephen