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Staff Profile: Professor Rod McNaughton, Academic Director

29 June 2022

Rod McNaughton is a professor of entrepreneurship and Director Innovation and Professional Development at the University of Auckland. He has extensive experience developing entrepreneurial ecosystems and helping start-ups launch and grow, and is an internationally-recognised thought leader on entrepreneurship issues.

Tell us a little about your background and how you ended up at the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE).

I joined the University of Auckland (UoA) in 2013 as a professor of entrepreneurship. At the time, CIE was called the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning. The co-directors of the Centre, Geoff Whitcher and Kenneth Husted, had ambitious plans for the Centre, reflected in its renaming. I succeeded Geoff and Kenneth as director of the Centre in 2014. 

Within a year, we secured additional funding and hired CIE’s first full-time director, Wendy Kerr. This was the inflection point in the Centre’s growth, with Unleash Space and many new programmes coming online in subsequent years. With Wendy in place as director, I became academic director, allowing me to focus on strategic issues related to entrepreneurship education and research rather than daily operations.

Before moving to Auckland, I was the director of the Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business at the University of Waterloo in Canada. However, I have a longer-term connection to Aotearoa, having been a professor of marketing at the University of Otago before returning to Canada to work at UWaterloo. My wife and I loved living in New Zealand and became citizens soon after our son was born in Dunedin. Thus, I jumped at the chance to return to New Zealand and work at UoA. I learned much during my time in Waterloo about developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem and hoped I could help UoA achieve its ambition to become the leading entrepreneurial university in the region.

What does being the Academic Director of CIE involve?

As academic director, I help integrate the Centre with the university’s education and research activities and ensure the Centre is strategically aligned with the University’s and Business School’s aspirations. CIE is unique, having a mandate to engage students and staff across the university while also being a centre hosted by the Business School. CIE must be well connected with the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, corporates, government, potential donors and entrepreneurship centres at other universities. Thus, much of my role involves working with the current director of the centre, Darsel Keane, to navigate our complex multi-stakeholder environment. 

Historically, CIE’s programmes were all extracurricular. But increasingly, innovation and entrepreneurship are being incorporated into the curriculum. Part of my role is to advocate for the importance of including entrepreneurial competencies and skills across the curriculum and help make this happen. For example, I am contributing to the university’s curriculum framework transformation project. Innovation and entrepreneurship are identified as “hallmark” elements that will help distinguish the education experience at UoA and its graduates’ abilities. I am hopeful that soon all our students will have an entrepreneurial experience as part of their studies.

Universities that excel at practising entrepreneurship also generate thought leadership that stimulates entrepreneurial thinking and actions. Thus, another component of my role is to help mobilise research and provide thought leadership on entrepreneurship issues. CIE undertakes research to help understand and monitor our students’ entrepreneurial journey and measure the impact of our programmes. It is a leader among university entrepreneurship centres in its data-driven approach. This enhances the virtuous cycle of innovation and improvement in entrepreneurship education and practices that underpin our reputation and success. 

Why is it important that the University of Auckland and other institutions around the world invest in teaching innovation and entrepreneurship?

One of the biggest challenges I face as an entrepreneurship educator is getting staff and students across the university to understand how and why entrepreneurship is relevant to them. Some people think that entrepreneurship is the same as starting a business or find it challenging to see how entrepreneurial competencies are relevant to their discipline or career path. Yet many people who start businesses are not entrepreneurial, and innovation lacks the action component of seeing ideas through to implementation. Universities often train students to develop ideas but not implement them. The result is a shortage of effective change agents and a society that struggles with today’s crises, from the pandemic to climate change.

The entrepreneurial mindset and the skills and competencies underpinning it are essential to respond to complex social and environmental challenges. Consequently, entrepreneurship education has increased over the past two decades. It is common to incorporate opportunities to develop the skills and competencies for entrepreneurship across all degree programmes. Many countries have instituted national frameworks for entrepreneurship education at all levels.

There is a large body of evidence for the benefits of entrepreneurship education for students, universities and society. Students with sufficient entrepreneurial experience may increase their self-efficacy, employability, academic performance and, yes, their potential to start a business. Universities benefit from increased student engagement, retention, motivation, community relationships and enhanced reputation—society benefits through improved sustainability, social inclusion, innovation, and economic growth.

What are some highlights from your time with CIE so far?

I can’t narrow this down to a few! The biggest motivator for any entrepreneurship educator is the transformation we see in students. One day they are a student, but almost overnight, they become the leader and founder of a project or company. Suddenly everything takes on new meaning for them. Courses become opportunities for learning that can be applied to their venture; assignments become opportunities to undertake market or product research, social events provide opportunities to meet people with needed skills, and so on. Every time you see a student realise a purpose and start to pursue it with passion and confidence, it is a highlight!

From a career perspective, being involved in the growth of CIE is a highlight in itself. The CIE team truly models the values, entrepreneurial mindset, and behaviours we want to instil in students. “Orange” is not just the brand’s colour but a metaphor for how the Centre works. Orange is associated with enthusiasm, creativity, determination, and success. CIE is all of these things and more. It is humbling to be part of a team with such a strong positive culture and who are so good at what they do!

Any words of advice for students and staff at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journeys?

Just do it. Many students and staff have great ideas, but their training causes them to be more analytic than passionate. It is easy to devise reasons not to take the leap. But universities are nurturing environments for entrepreneurship. The cost of failure – particularly for students – is low. Resources are provided for free or can be readily “borrowed,” experts can be found on just about any topic, and potential team members are everywhere. Universities can be excellent incubators for fledgling entrepreneurial initiatives, helping prove and prepare them for “prime time.”

Relatedly, it helps to think about entrepreneurship as a learning process. Most entrepreneurs are at least partly motivated by the intellectual stimulation of not knowing quite enough about what they are doing and constantly learning “just-in-time” through experience. The ethos of an academic environment focused on learning, challenging ideas and assumptions, and ways of working that prize autonomy and self-determination are well suited to entrepreneurial endeavours.   

If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?

Someone whose voice is not often heard but should be listened to. We often look to the pinnacles of entrepreneurial success for wisdom. Yet their path is well-known, and their success often owes much to luck. Entrepreneurs should listen to diverse voices and learn from those who show passion, persistence and resilience in everything they do. Such people quietly lift others, sometimes forgoing a benefit themselves, yet we fail to acknowledge them as entrepreneurial heroes.

University of Auckland wins international award for entrepreneurship education
University of Auckland wins international award for entrepreneurship education

29 June 2022

Rod McNaughton is a professor of entrepreneurship and Director Innovation and Professional Development at the University of Auckland. He has extensive experience developing entrepreneurial ecosystems and helping start-ups launch and grow, and is an internationally-recognised thought leader on entrepreneurship issues.

Tell us a little about your background and how you ended up at the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE).

I joined the University of Auckland (UoA) in 2013 as a professor of entrepreneurship. At the time, CIE was called the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning. The co-directors of the Centre, Geoff Whitcher and Kenneth Husted, had ambitious plans for the Centre, reflected in its renaming. I succeeded Geoff and Kenneth as director of the Centre in 2014. 

Within a year, we secured additional funding and hired CIE’s first full-time director, Wendy Kerr. This was the inflection point in the Centre’s growth, with Unleash Space and many new programmes coming online in subsequent years. With Wendy in place as director, I became academic director, allowing me to focus on strategic issues related to entrepreneurship education and research rather than daily operations.

Before moving to Auckland, I was the director of the Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business at the University of Waterloo in Canada. However, I have a longer-term connection to Aotearoa, having been a professor of marketing at the University of Otago before returning to Canada to work at UWaterloo. My wife and I loved living in New Zealand and became citizens soon after our son was born in Dunedin. Thus, I jumped at the chance to return to New Zealand and work at UoA. I learned much during my time in Waterloo about developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem and hoped I could help UoA achieve its ambition to become the leading entrepreneurial university in the region.

What does being the Academic Director of CIE involve?

As academic director, I help integrate the Centre with the university’s education and research activities and ensure the Centre is strategically aligned with the University’s and Business School’s aspirations. CIE is unique, having a mandate to engage students and staff across the university while also being a centre hosted by the Business School. CIE must be well connected with the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, corporates, government, potential donors and entrepreneurship centres at other universities. Thus, much of my role involves working with the current director of the centre, Darsel Keane, to navigate our complex multi-stakeholder environment. 

Historically, CIE’s programmes were all extracurricular. But increasingly, innovation and entrepreneurship are being incorporated into the curriculum. Part of my role is to advocate for the importance of including entrepreneurial competencies and skills across the curriculum and help make this happen. For example, I am contributing to the university’s curriculum framework transformation project. Innovation and entrepreneurship are identified as “hallmark” elements that will help distinguish the education experience at UoA and its graduates’ abilities. I am hopeful that soon all our students will have an entrepreneurial experience as part of their studies.

Universities that excel at practising entrepreneurship also generate thought leadership that stimulates entrepreneurial thinking and actions. Thus, another component of my role is to help mobilise research and provide thought leadership on entrepreneurship issues. CIE undertakes research to help understand and monitor our students’ entrepreneurial journey and measure the impact of our programmes. It is a leader among university entrepreneurship centres in its data-driven approach. This enhances the virtuous cycle of innovation and improvement in entrepreneurship education and practices that underpin our reputation and success. 

Why is it important that the University of Auckland and other institutions around the world invest in teaching innovation and entrepreneurship?

One of the biggest challenges I face as an entrepreneurship educator is getting staff and students across the university to understand how and why entrepreneurship is relevant to them. Some people think that entrepreneurship is the same as starting a business or find it challenging to see how entrepreneurial competencies are relevant to their discipline or career path. Yet many people who start businesses are not entrepreneurial, and innovation lacks the action component of seeing ideas through to implementation. Universities often train students to develop ideas but not implement them. The result is a shortage of effective change agents and a society that struggles with today’s crises, from the pandemic to climate change.

The entrepreneurial mindset and the skills and competencies underpinning it are essential to respond to complex social and environmental challenges. Consequently, entrepreneurship education has increased over the past two decades. It is common to incorporate opportunities to develop the skills and competencies for entrepreneurship across all degree programmes. Many countries have instituted national frameworks for entrepreneurship education at all levels.

There is a large body of evidence for the benefits of entrepreneurship education for students, universities and society. Students with sufficient entrepreneurial experience may increase their self-efficacy, employability, academic performance and, yes, their potential to start a business. Universities benefit from increased student engagement, retention, motivation, community relationships and enhanced reputation—society benefits through improved sustainability, social inclusion, innovation, and economic growth.

What are some highlights from your time with CIE so far?

I can’t narrow this down to a few! The biggest motivator for any entrepreneurship educator is the transformation we see in students. One day they are a student, but almost overnight, they become the leader and founder of a project or company. Suddenly everything takes on new meaning for them. Courses become opportunities for learning that can be applied to their venture; assignments become opportunities to undertake market or product research, social events provide opportunities to meet people with needed skills, and so on. Every time you see a student realise a purpose and start to pursue it with passion and confidence, it is a highlight!

From a career perspective, being involved in the growth of CIE is a highlight in itself. The CIE team truly models the values, entrepreneurial mindset, and behaviours we want to instil in students. “Orange” is not just the brand’s colour but a metaphor for how the Centre works. Orange is associated with enthusiasm, creativity, determination, and success. CIE is all of these things and more. It is humbling to be part of a team with such a strong positive culture and who are so good at what they do!

Any words of advice for students and staff at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journeys?

Just do it. Many students and staff have great ideas, but their training causes them to be more analytic than passionate. It is easy to devise reasons not to take the leap. But universities are nurturing environments for entrepreneurship. The cost of failure – particularly for students – is low. Resources are provided for free or can be readily “borrowed,” experts can be found on just about any topic, and potential team members are everywhere. Universities can be excellent incubators for fledgling entrepreneurial initiatives, helping prove and prepare them for “prime time.”

Relatedly, it helps to think about entrepreneurship as a learning process. Most entrepreneurs are at least partly motivated by the intellectual stimulation of not knowing quite enough about what they are doing and constantly learning “just-in-time” through experience. The ethos of an academic environment focused on learning, challenging ideas and assumptions, and ways of working that prize autonomy and self-determination are well suited to entrepreneurial endeavours.   

If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?

Someone whose voice is not often heard but should be listened to. We often look to the pinnacles of entrepreneurial success for wisdom. Yet their path is well-known, and their success often owes much to luck. Entrepreneurs should listen to diverse voices and learn from those who show passion, persistence and resilience in everything they do. Such people quietly lift others, sometimes forgoing a benefit themselves, yet we fail to acknowledge them as entrepreneurial heroes.


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