Seeding and nourishing an “enterprise awareness” and entrepreneurial  mindset is best begun while engineers are students says this alumnus.

by Ron Nixon, B.S.M.E., '78, co-founding partner, The Catalyst Group, Inc.

Historically, the classroom-based education of engineers has focused on the science supporting the profession, while overlooking the value of interdisciplinary studies relating to the business environment into which the engineering will apply. Fortunately, the last 10 years has seen an encouraging shift begin in engineering education introducing students to an awareness that to pursue optimal utility in a competitive business environment requires a full understanding of enterprise strategies and objectives.  Additionally, meaningful cooperation between engineering, marketing, manufacturing, and finance is required to achieve results that provide the enterprise a competitive edge. 

Optimal outcomes are unlikely if engineers are isolated  in labs fostering creations while the marketing,  manufacturing and finance teams are huddled in conference rooms developing business plans. 

Functional segregation and compartmentalization is being replaced by collaboration and integration among leading edge firms and institutions.

The aggressive pace of business today, including the almost instantaneous dispersion of intellectual capital, requires engineers to utilize their creative and analytical skills with proper awareness and appreciation of the short, intermediate and longer term  business objectives. Additionally, all team members, especially engineering, must  have economic accountability for its projects. Seeding and nourishing this “enterprise awareness” and entrepreneurial  mindset is best begun while engineers are students.

Many misperceive that the term entrepreneur applies only to the business owner who has successfully spearheaded the development  of a new invention, service or concept and profited from it.  I submit that a successful enterprise must be full of “entrepreneurs.”  The definition of entrepreneurial is, “the willingness to undertake a project requiring initiative and involving risk, for one's own purposes.”  Being entrepreneurial applies to any professional employee, whether the enterprise is a for profit or not for profit, in the same way that the concept  applies to a business owner.  Entrepreneurship  involves “ownership of the projects and assignments you undertake and/or manage.”   Entrepreneurial  creativity nearly always translates into productivity gains, new products, new or enhanced services, processes or methods or combinations of each, and it involves risks; both institutional (related to breaking away from traditional and/or embedded practices and  norms), and individual (related to one’s personal accountability for  his or her efforts).

Developing an entrepreneurial mindset among students is a priority for the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. I am leading a task force for the Engineering Advisory Board that is focused on assisting Dean Fenves in further positioning the Cockrell School of Engineering as a global center for entrepreneurship. To demonstrate the commitment to entrepreneurship among students, the Cockrell School of Engineering will feature a series of articles on the subject. We will hear from a variety of successful entrepreneurial engineers and engineers who are entrepreneurs. 

Ronald T. Nixon is a co-founding principal of The Catalyst Group, Inc., a private equity investment company focused on manufacturing, distribution and service businesses. Mr. Nixon earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from The University of Texas at Austin and is a registered professional engineer in Texas.


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