Episode 5: Sarah Goforth
Sarah Goforth is the Director of Outreach for the Office of Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
Sarah co-teaches New Venture Development and supports student teams forming high-growth
science and technology businesses.
00:08 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today.
00:28 Matt Waller: With me here today, Professor Sarah Goforth. She's an Adjunct Professor in the Sam M. Walton College of Business. And she is really helping us to advance a key part of our mission, because the mission of the Walton College is to advance and disseminate business knowledge using a diverse, inclusive and global perspective, and encouraging innovation in our primary strategic endeavors, which include retail, analytics and entrepreneurship. So, of our three strategic endeavors, entrepreneurship is a key part of it. Thank you for joining me.
01:02 Sarah Goforth: Thank you so much for having me.
01:04 Matt Waller: Sarah, I've talked to you about entrepreneurship quite a bit, and I've seen you teach, I've heard about your teaching, and I've been very impressed with it, and I know you're also an expert in communications. You have a scientific background, lots of interest in technology commercialization. And so, we're gonna be talking about all of that today. But, if you wouldn't mind, I would like to start with a little bit of a discussion on the entrepreneurial mindset.
01:41 Sarah Goforth: Sure.
01:42 Matt Waller: What is the entrepreneurial mindset?
01:45 Sarah Goforth: It's something that I think about every day, really, in some fashion or another. I think the term entrepreneur can, in some circles, have a little bit of a cloud of mystique around it. The idea of being, to be an entrepreneur, you have to go to Silicon Valley, and raise millions of dollars in venture capital, and ultimately earn $500 million, and then write a book. [chuckle] And that is one model, but there are many, many other models for what it is to be an entrepreneur, and for what it is to be entrepreneurial. And something that I believe and try to help students see every day is that, an entrepreneurial mindset is really the ability to look into the world, to look into your own life, and when you see problems, to become energized by them, rather than to be discouraged by them. And to cultivate within yourself the ability to surround yourself with the people, the knowledge, the tools, to go out and tackle the problems, whatever they are. And you may do this within your own life as an individual. You may do it within your job as an innovator, in a company or a non-profit. And you may do it as this traditional type of entrepreneur, meaning, going out and starting a business venture. But I believe that the mindset is really relevant, no matter who you are and what your role in life is.
03:06 Matt Waller: A lot of times, when people think about entrepreneurs, they think about pure startups. But one thing I've been seeing from our partners. Because many of our company partners are enormous. I mean, just in Northwest Arkansas, we have the headquarters of three Fortune 500 companies, but we have major offices of about 1500 consumer products companies, and it seems like they're all becoming more and more interested in this entrepreneurial mindset. What do you think is driving that?
03:40 Sarah Goforth: Well, I think, as you know better than most people, the world is just in a constant state of disruption. The pace of technological change is faster than it perhaps has ever been, and that creates a lot of discomfort about the future for all companies, small companies, mid-sized companies and big companies. I was just, this past weekend, at the kick-off event of the Delta I-Fund, which is our regional accelerator program for very early stage ideas and companies, and this cohort is focused on agriculture. And I know very little about agriculture, so I was there as an instructor to train on the methodology, but it was really exciting to me to see all of these people in the room, from big industrial mega Ag companies to individual family farmers, all looking at the disruption and seeing opportunity. And seeing opportunity for economic development, and the Delta seeing opportunity for sustainability, seeing all these new tools at their disposal, and trying to figure out "How do I use these and make the world a better place, create opportunity for myself and my family?" And I think most companies see that too, and they want that quality in their employees more and more. I've definitely experienced that in my career.
04:52 Matt Waller: So, Sarah, you mentioned the I-Fund.
04:55 Sarah Goforth: Yeah.
04:56 Matt Waller: Would you mind talking a little bit about that, and also about what you did at this event?
05:00 Sarah Goforth: Sure. It's a fantastic program that I've been involved with for two years, and it's been going on for three years, funded by the State of Arkansas, and also by the Delta Regional Authority. It's a training and mentoring program designed to help early-stage entrepreneurs, some of whom have had no formal training whatsoever, they just have an idea, a dream. Sometimes, it's for people who have a product, and they wanna build a business around it. It's a program that pairs these teams with a mentor, who meets with them every week, and usually this is an entrepreneur who has some experience in their industry, along with instructional opportunities, and we use a toolkit called The Lean Startup Toolkit. And it's not rocket science, the core idea of that toolkit is, you start to build a business by forming a lot of guesses, a lot of hypotheses around what your model might be, and you very quickly get out into the world, and start testing those ideas, and gathering information with real people who are facing those problems that you're trying to solve. So that, if it's a bad idea, you learn that quickly. Usually it's so that some of your ideas, maybe, it's about your distribution channels, or about how you'll make money, or who will pay you. So that you can evolve, morph, your original idea into something that will have more success.
06:15 Sarah Goforth: So, this program is designed to help people learn that, really fast, by guiding them through this process of talking to the people who would be their customers, and learning from them. And the kick-off weekend, all the mentors, and the teams, and the instructors, so I'm an instructor in the program, get together, and we talk about the lean startup method, and we actually do some customer discovery right there in that very first day. [chuckle] So these people think that they're gonna go and sit in a classroom all day long, and it's like, "No, for the next three hours, you're out into the world, you gotta get three interviews under your belt, and we'll get back to gather the next day to talk about it."
06:47 Matt Waller: What a great way to learn.
06:47 Sarah Goforth: Yeah, it's the best way to learn.
06:49 Matt Waller: Have you done this before, or was this your first time?
06:52 Sarah Goforth: With the I-Fund?
06:53 Matt Waller: Yes.
06:53 Sarah Goforth: This was my fifth cohort that I've been involved in.
06:56 Matt Waller: Wow!
06:57 Sarah Goforth: Yeah.
06:58 Matt Waller: What have you learned yourself by going through five cohorts here?
07:03 Sarah Goforth: Well, my favorite thing about being part of it is that I always learn about the industries and the businesses of the people who are in the cohort, so it's a never-ending learning curve for me. But what I've learned in terms of what kinds of educational methodologies work, is that the teams who really believe the most in their product and have the firmest idea of what they wanna do, struggle the most. [chuckle] Because they have this problem of confirmation bias, they wanna hear their audience say, "Yes, that's a great idea. I'm definitely gonna wanna buy it." And people on the other end often wanna say that too. So, when you go into an interview with a customer, we train people, we teach people go in by asking open-ended questions, not selling your idea, pitching your idea, "Here's my product, do you like it?" Don't ask that question, because people will say, "Yes."
07:57 Sarah Goforth: So, people who have a really strong vision and have already developed a product, that is typically challenging for them, they're already in pitch mode, and un-training that is hard. The people who come into the program who have experienced a problem, so, for example, a farmer who... I'm on the Ag beat, because it's fresh on my mind after this weekend. A farmer who has crops that are resistant to the main pesticide available, experiences this problem, wants to solve it, has this great personal need, but doesn't yet have the toolkit, they're very open-minded about the process. They're very comfortable going out and talking to people like them.
08:32 Sarah Goforth: So, for me, take home lesson there as a person who's at the University of Arkansas, is the earlier we can expose students to this way of thinking, to this way of being in the world, where when you see a problem, it's okay to test your ideas, it's okay to create something, a minimal viable product, that's maybe kinda sloppy, and get it out there, rather than developing your idea behind your desk for 15 years, and only starting to pursue it when you have a PhD. It's a lot easier to learn, it's like learning a language, the earlier you try to learn it in your life, the easier it is to pick up.
09:05 Matt Waller: I've noticed this with dissertations as well. I noticed back when I was doing lots of dissertations, that students who came into a program saying, "This is what I wanna do my dissertation on. This is the methodology I wanna use, etcetera, etcetera," I'm a little reluctant to wanna work with them, because it's gonna be so hard. Maybe they have questions about a phenomena, but it's better if they come and say, "What theory explains this?" "Is this even a good question?" "How would you investigate this question?" They're the ones who do the best. You know, Sarah, one of the things I... 'Cause I really believe in feedback. Feedback is like gold.
09:51 Sarah Goforth: Yes. [chuckle]
09:53 Matt Waller: And the more you get in life, the better you become. It's painful, but actually, once you get a lot of feedback, you start realizing, it's really not that painful, one. You know? And two, when you start seeing the benefits of it, you want more, 'cause you realize, "This is gonna make me better." It's a competitive advantage to get feedback.
10:18 Sarah Goforth: Yes.
10:18 Matt Waller: I'm trying to implement that in the college across the board. I know, when I became Dean, one of the things I asked leadership team is, I said, "How satisfied are students with the education they're getting?" And I don't mean student evaluations. "How satisfied are parents when they come for orientation, or for campus tours? How satisfied are recruiters with what we're doing?" Etcetera, etcetera, right?
10:45 Sarah Goforth: Right.
10:46 Matt Waller: And the answer was, "We don't know." So one of the things I started doing right away was trying to figure out how are we gonna get this feedback. Because if we want to really improve, if we wanna be a world-class business school, we have to get as much feedback as we can, and we need to incorporate it in change. We have to be willing to change. And that's harder to do than it would seem.
11:11 Sarah Goforth: Yeah, it's very entrepreneurial of you. [chuckle] Yeah, I mean, it's one of the things that actually, I'm really passionate about, is the evolving business model of the university. Not our university specifically, although, yes, I think about our university. But in general, universities, for a long time, were the purveyors of information.
11:29 Matt Waller: Yes.
11:29 Sarah Goforth: And we don't need to just be doing that anymore. If we are simply a purveyor of information, we will find ourselves out of business very quickly. So we need to think about what other unique roles do we play, what other value do we provide? And I completely agree with you, always be asking, "Are we doing it well? Are we meeting the market demand?" And the market includes the students, it includes their parents, it includes the business community, who have jobs for them. And then, of course, there's the research enterprise at the university, and basic research needs a business model and it's not a business model in the sense of, we should always be conducting research that has some commercial outcome, but we need to be helping and empowering those commercial outcomes, so that society can understand why funding this basic research enterprise matters, ultimately, at the end of the day.
12:20 Matt Waller: I noticed early on, one of our first conversations, it was clear to me you had some passion about this synergy between basic research and science and commercialization, and the virtuous cycle that it creates. Would you mind talking about that a little bit?
12:40 Sarah Goforth: Yeah, you're right. And I actually have spent a great deal of my career very focused on the basic research enterprise. I'm a science communicator by training, and have worked at places that passionately defend the purpose of gathering knowledge for its own sake. So, this is knowledge with no commercial outcome. And so, I've had the question for myself, even, what is that value? I'm not gonna spend my career arguing for something that I don't really believe in. And so, I've really studied over many years, why it matters? Why does it matter if we understand the history of life on Earth? Why does it matter if we understand how cells communicate with each other? And I am now a hoarder of data about that topic, [chuckle] so I'll just throw out one stat, which is somebody did a study, just a couple of years ago, that found that if you study all of the papers in the scientific literature that have been cited just one time, just one citation.
13:37 Sarah Goforth: And you know as an academic, the most good papers are cited many, many times. 80% of them can be traced, in some way, to a patent or a commercial outcome. So what this means to me is that 80% of all papers that have just one citation being traced to some commercial outcome, even when you're studying as a basic researcher, the ways that the bacterial immune system work, for example, you can't predict what that outcome will be, but it's critically important to have that volume of knowledge for those commercial outcomes. So I believe that we within the university, and others too. So I worked at the Smithsonian, which has a role in studying the history of life on Earth, we have an obligation to connect the dots, so that the body of knowledge is connected to pathways for commercialization when it makes sense, but we also have a very, very deep obligation to protect the army of foundation builders.
14:33 Sarah Goforth: So, it's just like any kind of business out in the world, without a foundation of understanding about the market, and the economy, and banking, and accounting, and all of that, you can't build a business. Without a fundamental understanding of how cells work, you can't create a drug. You certainly couldn't invent a technology like CRISPR. And there are many, many examples of technologies that began in a lab where someone was just pursuing their fundamental curiosity. So, this is something that universities uniquely cultivate.
15:02 Matt Waller: I've never heard anyone articulate that as well as you just did.
15:07 Sarah Goforth: It's my favorite subject. [chuckle]
15:09 Matt Waller: And you know, for business, that's really important to understand.
15:14 Sarah Goforth: Yes.
15:15 Matt Waller: And for businesspeople and politicians, it's easy to overlook the importance of that part of the ecosystem.
15:23 Sarah Goforth: Yes.
15:24 Matt Waller: Within business, we do basic research in business. You know, the most basic, I guess, would be what comes out of economics, economic theory, empirical research in Economics. But also, not just there, also Psychology. Psychology and Economics and, I would say, Operations Research. It seems to me, you could probably trace most of the research in business to either Operations Research, meaning Statistics and Optimization, Mathematics type of things. Or Psychology, or Economics, those are probably... And maybe Sociology, as well. And Anthropology, I'm sorry.
16:11 Matt Waller: Now that I'm thinking of it. But, because I'm thinking, Jeff Murray, who's a Marketing professor, he uses a lot of anthropological methods, he's been a very successful researcher. But he also uses a lot of Philosophy of Science in his research of Marketing, which I think... You know, it's interesting, if most people read the books that he reads, they might wonder how could this apply? But if you're a student, and you listen to him talk about brand building, for example, you'll be amazed, and you'll hear things you've never heard before. I know, I used to think of brand building, for example, as being a bunch of people coming together and saying, "Okay, here's gonna be our brand. Here's how we're gonna market it," etcetera, etcetera. And I remember when I used to run our China Executive MBA program. And so, when he came over to teach, I sat through his whole session. We had four-day sessions, once a month. And he talked about the Starbucks brand, and several other brands, and he said, that is not how brands are developed, and he explained how brands develop. And if you understand how brands develop, then you've got a good shot at knowing how to move the momentum in the direction that you want to go.
17:36 Sarah Goforth: Right.
17:37 Matt Waller: But that took a lot of basic research, even in Philosophy.
17:41 Sarah Goforth: No question. And I think about, a lot of times, when people are asking me how do we define entrepreneurship in our programs, I like to use John Johnson, to cite another Walton College faculty member, as an example, because here's someone who has an illustrious academic career, and at one point, is looking at the state of the world, and the state of the planet's health, and saying, there are massive problems. And he knows that we're sitting in this region that has this foundation of fundamental understanding of things, like supply chain, and logistics, and how goods are transported around the world. So that's built up in a basic research environment. And at the same time, we have in our backyard this incredible dynamic community of retail and consumer package goods companies. And he says, "You know what? I'm not gonna sit and just complain about this problem. I will be energized by it," and he created the Sustainability Consortium with many partners.
18:37 Sarah Goforth: And this is probably the most exciting entrepreneurial venture I've experienced in my career. He's the most exciting entrepreneur to me, because what he has built with many partners is based on pooling together the available resources in this very incredibly creative way, and drawing on that foundation of very applied knowledge, and that foundation of very academic knowledge, and having a real impact in the world as a result. So, that couldn't have happened if you only had the companies and not the foundation of knowledge in a broader sense.
19:13 Matt Waller: And that organization brings in a lot of revenue to the university.
19:17 Sarah Goforth: Yes. Yeah. And a lot of great people.
19:20 Matt Waller: Yes. Industry is using it in a massive way.
19:23 Sarah Goforth: Right.
19:24 Matt Waller: Sarah, you're also helping us with the New Venture Development Courses in the MBA program.
19:28 Sarah Goforth: Yeah.
19:30 Matt Waller: Would you mind talking about that a little bit?
19:31 Sarah Goforth: Oh, sure. So, the New Venture Development Program, it has been led by Professor Carol Reeves, who is Associate Vice-Chancellor for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University, for many years. It's a class, but at the same time it's a whole program and a whole community unto itself. And I think what she has learned over the years is that to cultivate high growth knowledge based ventures, many of which come from a STEM environment, to begin with, you can't just be in a classroom and teach students how to be entrepreneurs. You have to create an environment where they are surrounded by people who have stories to share, people who have experience in their industries, people who've been there, done that, potential investors, and many different kinds of educators and support systems. And so, she's created a class that's surrounded by... We have our Mentor Weekend coming up in three weeks, where people come from all over the country to mentor our teams.
20:33 Sarah Goforth: The other thing I think that she learned in that time is the value and importance of pairing really bright MBA students. Some of them are young, full-time MBA students, and some of them are very seasoned executive MBA students with technologists. So, we recruit from all disciplines within the university, but the magic happens when we have teams that have a technologist, and an accountant, and an MBA student, and a marketing student in the mix. And in the beginning, they don't even speak each other's languages. [chuckle] The PhD student in Civil Engineering doesn't know what EBITDA is, or any of the jargon, and vice versa for the MBA students. And by the end of the program, they are like family members, and can speak for each other.
21:18 Sarah Goforth: And I spend a fair amount of time with her and those teams, and I always describe it as the heart of the entrepreneurship program. It reaches a small number of students, but it goes very, very deep. And those students typically stay very involved afterwards. So the alumni network is as rich as I've ever experienced, and they're practically at our doorstep, begging us, "Please, let me help you, because you've helped me so much over the years." And so, it's part of this sort of fertile ecosystem that you need to have for entrepreneurship to thrive.
21:51 Matt Waller: Sarah, I know we've had a number of teams, and you've been on these teams, where we've gone to other universities and studied the best in technology commercialization, the best in entrepreneurship programs. You've seen all kinds of different ways of doing this. What are some things you've learned from that?
22:12 Sarah Goforth: Those trips are always so much fun, and so exciting, because you see how ecosystems thrive. And I would say the main thing I've learned is that no two are alike. So, in St. Louis, for example, there's this incredibly rich entrepreneurial ecosystem built around the life sciences, which builds on a research foundation that began decades and decades ago. In Atlanta, specifically, there is a tremendous tech software development culture that's blossoming, and there are all kinds of reasons for that too. In some ways, I come back from those trips feeling a little disappointed in myself, because part of my goal is looking at the programs, and what could I emulate? What could I create here? What can I learn there that I can build on here? But at the end of the day, I think what it comes down to is, in Northwest Arkansas and in Arkansas as a whole, we have an obligation and an opportunity to look at what's unique about us. What are the assets that we have, and we have some absolutely tremendous assets in this state. And what are the opportunities, both in the near run and in the long term?
23:22 Sarah Goforth: So, no one else, in my opinion, has the opportunity that we have in the areas of supply chain logistics, the future of commerce. Very few places have the opportunity that we have in sustainability, and I think that we have a growing opportunity in health and well-being, because of the rich interconnectedness of the people in our state. There are other states that have great medical schools and great hospital systems, but very few have this ability to, on a dime, network people together, as we're doing in the Executive MBA Program, and in our new executive education facility in Little Rock, to get people in the room together, talking and agreeing to pilot ideas. So, for me, looking at those other regions tells me we need to look in a fresh way at our own.
24:14 Matt Waller: I need to pay you extra for that. That was good. Sarah, thank you so much for taking time to talk with me about entrepreneurship, science, and technology commercialization.
24:28 Sarah Goforth: Thank you so much, Matt, for having me.
24:32 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEPIC Podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C Podcast. And now, be epic.