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Practitioner's Corner: From Advisor to Entrepreneur to Scholar

  
(posted on behalf of Sean Wise)
Scholar:
Associate Professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship & Strategy at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly known as Ryerson University)
Chair of the Departmental Hiring Committee
Executive Director, Startup School
Teacher
 
Practitioner:
Five times serial entrepreneur with two multimillion dollar exits
Partner at various seed funds
Student Coach

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I have been an entrepreneur since the age of 13. After being fired from my job at McDonald's, for asking too many questions, my mom suggested I might not be cut out to be an employee. So, I started my first business (a clown service for kid’s birthday parties) and haven’t stopped starting new ventures since (I sold my last start-up for $30M in 2018). 
 
My road towards academia began more than 25 years ago. I had graduated law school with a focus on corporate finance and was practicing as a junior solicitor in a top-tier multinational law firm. Unfortunately, my learning disabilities and neurodiversity were making proofreading my own work impossible. Suffice to say, it was a big problem. Lawyers aren’t paid to leave mistakes in materials. As a result, the senior partners of my firm were growing concerned.
 
Luckily for me, I was at Ernst & Young’s law firm which was part of a larger professional services firm. So instead of being fired or made to quit, I was transferred to Corporate Finance to begin supporting Venture Capital funds and the start-ups they invest in. It was the beginning of the dot.com boom and young entrepreneurs were becoming good clients. I did much better as an advisor than as a lawyer and soon built a network of fast-growing start-up clients. As the dot.com boom raged, I took a sabbatical from E&Y to work full time on a client’s start-up in New York City. Unfortunately for that start-up, the dot.com boom became the dot.com bust and the new venture evaporated. Lucky for me, I was still with E&Y and returned to the firm to help lead E&Y’s Venture Capital Advisory Group.  
 
This was the first time that my entrepreneurial experiences were seen as a boon. Start-up founders’ absorptive capacity seemed enhanced by the credibility of the advice giver. i.e. people listen to those who: “have been there - done that”. This made me an ideal liaison with the under-30 millionaire founders I was charged to counsel.
 
Eventually my passion for start-ups led to a role at Spencer Trask. Spencer Trask was the original angel investor behind Thomas Edison. Years later the firm that bears his name is one of the pre-eminent investors in start-up innovation in the world and a family fund with billions to invest. It was the time of Web 2.0 and we launched VenCorps, an attempt to leverage a community of millions to make seed investment decisions through crowdsourcing. VenCorps had some modest success, but in the end Kickstarter and Angellist became the industry leaders and Vencorps floundered.
 
At that exact moment in time the 2008 financial crisis hit and my then billionaire boss became a millionaire. In the wake of that crash, my boss "freed up" myself and dozens of others for new opportunities. At that time, Ryerson University in Toronto had a new President, who wanted to make Innovation and Entrepreneurship the strategic focus of the institution. Ryerson had a long history of success by focusing on leveraging practitioners.  At the time, many faculty had come from industry and most wished to educate the next generation not just with theory, but with experientially based education. Leadership at the school offered me a tenure-stream faculty role, even though I lacked a PhD, thinking I could bring practitioner perspectives to new venture creation on campus.
 
As a serial entrepreneur, who had witnessed how a boom quickly becomes a bust, and who had twice been burned by rapidly changing tides, I was open to a new career approach. The stability and benefits offered by a University environment were very appealing to me. I was also now in my mid-30s and starting to turn my mind to making room for a family.  Working 100-hour weeks are not conducive to that goal. So, I accepted the offer at the Ted Rogers School of Management and began my academic career. 
 
Ryerson University, newly renamed as Toronto Metropolitan University, is recognized as Canada’s leading innovation and entrepreneurship University, offering undergraduate and graduate degrees and more than 60 courses in the subject. It has an extensive entrepreneurial ecosystem including 12 incubators, which we call Zones, one of which, the DMZ, is recognized as the leading university incubator in the world. I joined the Department of Entrepreneurship and Strategy, which is a major contributor to this ecosystem and that’s where I’ve been for the last decade.
 
Soon after joining, I enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Glasgow’s Adam Smith School of Business. Although part-time, my doctorate took five years to complete. It exposed me to the rigors of peer review, and I began to fill out my academic resume. 
 
Like most entrepreneurs, I am always scanning the environment to find “unmet market needs” and entering academia was no different. In early years, I was appalled by the lack of video-based case studies that didn’t feature white men from Silicon Valley. Like most entrepreneurs I firmly believe “if it is going to be, it is up to me” so when I found unmet market needs, aka opportunities, I vigorously set out to build things to address these needs.
 
First up was upgrading Bygrave's seminal text on Entrepreneurship for a Canadian audience: adding in more inclusive, diverse case studies, lean start-up principles, and Canadian entrepreneurial success stories like Sleemans and Tim Hortons. The textbook has had great traction, with adoption by some two dozen schools across the country. Next up, was to create a series of video case studies, interviews featuring diverse founders sharing jarring truths and reality checks. It was called the Naked Entrepreneur and it too was adopted by dozens of schools, but this time globally. Similarly, I helped support the creation of a seed venture fund on campus, invest in more than two dozen start-ups on campus, mentoring the portfolio to exit, and even helped create a start-up unicorn. After integrating these activities into the curriculum, I was honored with several teaching awards for the work done. And, of course, I have been teaching a wide range of entrepreneurship courses to students from all across campus, both undergraduate and graduate.
 
So, what is the value of a scholar-practitioner? According to Charles McClintock in the Encyclopedia of Distributed Learning, the scholar-practitioner is “an ideal of professional excellence grounded in theory and research, informed by experimental knowledge, and motivated by personal values, political commitments, and ethical conduct”. Scholar-practitioners are committed to the well-being of students and colleagues, to learning new ways of being effective, and to conceptualizing their work in relation to broader organizational, community, political, and cultural contexts. Scholar- practitioners explicitly reflect on and assess the impact of their work. As scholar-practitioners, we often disseminate our knowledge through informal environments with colleagues, students, networks, and our community; as scholars, we do so in a more formal way via journals, conferences, books etc. In my case I do that through a weekly column for Inc.com 
 
In a nutshell that’s me. My students want to become successful founders or to work for the funders who invest in such. But entrepreneurship is a practice based on tacit knowledge. Unlike math, it can’t be taught in a textbook.  It must be deployed in a manner to create a safe space for students to experience entrepreneurship. And, to offer these students the most learning support, instructors must become a “guide from the side” not a “sage from the stage”. This is a role especially suited for scholar-practitioners, whose “been there - done that” experience not only makes them a credible source for students, but also gives them the practical tools to enhance experiential learning. 
 
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Dr. Sean Wise, BA LLB MBA PhD
As a celebrated business speaker and one of North America’s leading mentors with an unmistakable passion for business, Dr. Sean Wise specializes in helping emerging and high growth potential organizations jump on the trajectory and turn a profit. He is a Professor of Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University, an award-winning author, and was a featured consultant on Canada’s popular Dragons’ Den business reality show series.  Sean Wise helps business dreams become profitable realities.
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