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Stanford Rebuild Showcase: The Age of Entrepreneurs During COVID-19

stanford graduate school of business entrepreneurs coronavirus pandemic

Jobs, careers, and employment have changed beyond recognition in many instances during the madness of 2020.

We’ve started working remotely, undertaken classes and meetings via Zoom, and generally changed our outlook on what the world of work will look like moving forward.

Social distancing and lockdowns across the globe gave us a lot of time to think and to plan – and, for many entrepreneurs, a time to kickstart the next chapter of their careers.

Believe it or not, a number of new business ventures and innovative start-ups were launched during the coronavirus pandemic, making 2020 a year for growth in some ways too.

To find out a little more about innovation during these trying times, we went to a source in Silicon Valley to find out more.

Business schools making their mark

In reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stanford Graduate School of Business launched Stanford Rebuild – a collaboration across Stanford University to Engage Innovators, Encourage Action, and Offer Our Expertise by means of approaching and tackling the global pandemic head on.

The Stanford Rebuild team said: “We could not be more inspired by the individuals and teams who have joined this program, sought the opportunity to make an impact, and committed what time they could spare to tackle a COVID challenge in their own community or the broader world.”

Over eight weeks, participants attended virtual events, actively participating in live office hours while working on the Stanford Embark platform.

More than 5,300 teams from across the globe entered the Stanford Rebuild program with 11 making it to the final showcase in September.

TopMBA spoke with Stefanos Zenios, faculty director for Stanford Rebuild (and also co-director of Stanford GSB’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies), to learn a little bit more about why the program was so important.

Makings of a showcase

Although many of us would consider Stanford Rebuild as a business plan competition, Stefanos sees Stanford Rebuild more as creating a virtual infrastructure to help entrepreneurs from across the globe.

He said: “I think business plan competitions are valuable in their own right. They don't tend to include an educational component.

“Our intention wasn’t to select winners, but rather to develop entrepreneurs. Of course, it's good to have the showcase at the end so everyone can see the energy, and the teams that work really hard also get the reward of getting the input.

“We never considered the possibility of giving monetary rewards to the winning teams, because we thought that would be perpendicular to what we're trying to accomplish.”

The team that launched Stanford Rebuild felt it was important to figure out a way to connect with entrepreneurs outside of both the Silicon Valley ecosystem and Stanford GSB’s programs because the kind of entrepreneurial activity that happens in the rest of the world often has very little resemblance to the entrepreneurial activity happening in Silicon Valley.

Stefanos said: “In many ways, one positive side effect, or positive consequence of a program like this, is what it teaches us about entrepreneurship globally, and how that can help us keep improving and updating our entrepreneurial offerings.

“Maybe in the next couple of years, we will do something like this again, for this broader community, but we will have learned something new that can help them and be more helpful and supportive.”

Entrepreneurial focus

With so many amazing teams taking part in Stanford Rebuild, and with 11 teams making it to the showcase, the Stanford Rebuild team had tough decisions to choose the best one – with all ideas being special in their own right. But, did Stefanos have a favorite one?

He said: “We had the telehealth one [Nightingale]. I think that's a very strong word. I think this is so timely given the nature of the COVID pandemic. The one for victims of sex trafficking from Albania [Empowerfull] stood out. Both of those teams were very mission-driven.”

Nightingale was driven by what is happening because of COVID-19, and responding to the pandemic, whereas Empowerfull looked into the deep systemic inequities that we have in society, coming up with a business-based solution to help people who have been marginalized and victimized to help them become empowered and start their own business – which Stefanos says he found inspirational.

Stefanos added that he found the telehealth team inspirational because of the way they leveraged some of the inefficiencies of the healthcare delivery system and turned them into something much more efficient.

“In healthcare, there is this ongoing experiment of figuring out a business model for digital. The business model for digital health has not been very strong, up to now. But now with the pandemic, it's almost like the healthcare system is forced to figure out a business model for digital service. It was great to see a team play with that space,” he said.

Entrepreneurship in a new normal

During COVID-19, there’s been a necessity to ‘keep calm and carry on’ as best we can. Entrepreneurs have used this time to finetune their business models, adapt their designs and prepare for the next step.

It’s quite impressive how efficiently business owners have moved, not just because of the pandemic, but because of the new normal we find ourselves in.

But why have entrepreneurs succeeded moving forward? Stefanos said this is because humans are resilient.

He said: “People accept and adapt to change. They learn, they build and nurture relationships.

“We teach entrepreneurship by challenging our students to take change and opportunity. Change causes challenges, entrepreneurs identify those challenges, and type them into opportunities to create, to solve a challenge, to address a problem.

“Periods of change require a lot of patience and observation. Understanding requires a lot of learning. So, we have our entrepreneurs figure out their own way of learning through the changing environment and how they operate.”

Advice for entrepreneurs

Over the past few years there has been a gradual boom of tech and its capabilities – making it an exciting time for entrepreneurs to use their skillset to create something new.

Stefanos said: “Entrepreneurship tends to be a team-based sport. You want to build relationships with other members of your team, with your customers, with your clients, with the ecosystem in which you're operating in order to be able to address those challenging and changing times. So, in many ways, this period is made for entrepreneurs to make a difference.”

But what advice does Stefanos have for budding entrepreneurs? He said: “Keep learning and keep growing. I think it's a journey of lifelong growth, being an entrepreneur, and if this is what you decide to do, if this is the path for you, it's a part of ongoing learning and growth.

“I think entrepreneurs should embrace that with all its ups and downs. Keep up the fight.”

Niamh Ollerton, Deputy Head of Content at QS
Written by Niamh Ollerton

Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (TopMBA.com; topuniversities.com), creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

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