Business of life: High-tech entrepreneurship is about more than the next-big-thing
Ed Zschau wants people to know the truth: “High-Tech Entrepreneurship,” the immensely popular upperlevel engineering course he teaches, isn’t really about engineering. It’s about life.
“It’s about entrepreneurship and innovation,” said Zschau, professor of electrical engineering, operations research and financial engineering and the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education. “You can be an entrepreneur in anything you do. It’s about innovation and starting things from scratch. It’s about making something good in the world that didn’t exist before.”
Zschau took his inspiration from courses that he taught previously at Harvard Business School. In keeping with Harvard’s flagship case-based method, Zschau emphasizes work on real-world scenarios to expose students to the business world. But he has broadened his method to include guest speakers and special projects to introduce students to current technologies and living, breathing entrepreneurs.
Among these success stories is Timothy Ferriss, entrepreneur and author of the #1 New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek bestseller, “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.” Ferris, who graduated from Princeton in 2000 with a degree in East Asian studies, has returned to the University multiple times to share his experiences and adventures with Zschau’s students.
“The class teaches—more than how to create companies—how to write your own rules and blaze a career path that isn’t limited to the usual menu of options,” said Ferriss. “Whether CEO, congressman, or start-up founder, the skills and critical thinking taught in ELE 491 are applicable and immensely practical.”
By Zschau’s count, more than 100 of the 1,000 students who have taken his course since he started teaching it some 11 years ago are currently involved in entrepreneurial ventures. These include Princeton Power Systems, maker of electric power electronics systems, and Polyera Corporation, which produces organic semiconductor materials for printed electronics.
Regardless of their career paths, his former students, about half of whom are non-engineers, attest to Zschau’s significant impact on their lives.
Eun-Mee Jeong ’04 majored in music and credits Zschau’s course with shaping her goal to combine interests in the arts and business management. After graduating, she worked at Gap International and is now in business school at Stanford. “Lessons from ELE 491 often guided me through situations, and I definitely attribute the success I had at the Gap to Ed and his course,” Jeong said. Zschau’s own career path reflects his message to students. After earning his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Princeton in 1961, Zschau earned his master’s, MBA and Ph.D. degrees from Stanford. In addition to teaching at Harvard, he has also taught at Stanford Business School (joining the faculty at age 24), served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and founded multiple hightech ventures.
“Professor Zschau is simply an inspiring person to know,” said Alison Wood, who graduates this spring as a psychology major. He sings, too. Doing a Grammy-worthy version of Sinatra’s “My Way” (“Just do it your way”) at the last lecture each semester, Zschau blows his students away. And then, when they’ve regained their composure, they venture forth to make their mark on the world.