ASU Idea Leaders: Mitzi Montoya

(Arizona State University is redefining higher education in the United States. Focused on excellence, access and impact, ASU has taken the lead on developing entrepreneurial learners – students, faculty and staff who are not afraid to learn, unlearn and relearn to stay at the cutting edge of whatever it is they hope to accomplish. This series brings us face to face with community thought leaders who have transformed ASU through ideas and actions.)

During her time at Arizona State University’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (E+I), Dr. Mitzi Montoya has been responsible for advancing the university as a leader in entrepreneurship and innovation as well as for the strategic direction of ASU’s broad portfolio of entrepreneurial and innovative initiatives.

Recently, Montoya, who is the vice president and university dean of entrepreneurship and innovation at ASU, was named the dean of the College of Business at Oregon State University.

As she prepares to take her innovation-driven insight to Oregon State, E+I’s Kevin Kovaleski sat down with her to talk about how entrepreneurial learners are shaping the future of education and careers. Topics of discussion also included how ASU is changing the landscape of entrepreneurship and innovation among universities and within the Phoenix metro area.

“Entrepreneurship is totally trending. [laughs]. We’ve gone through a major economic adjustment period with this recession, This is the generation [of students] that saw their parents out of work. There is a little bit of distrust and realism that nothing is forever. It’s also a cultural phenomenon. It used to be that people were much more like ‘get your head out of the clouds and go to work.’ There’s a lot more self-actualization with this generation and they are much more about finding meaning. So now, people want to or are creating their own jobs. It’s a desire to have self-control and agency. Entrepreneurship is of interest to people of all fields.”

“This is why the Arizona State University way is interesting. A lot of universities are still going down the path of minor, major and courses in entrepreneurship. But at ASU, entrepreneurship is everywhere. It’s not just about a major or course, even though we’re doing that as well. ASU is offering on-demand knowledge and skills for people who want to understand how to be entrepreneurial and do something that has meaning. You can be in lifesciences, English or art, and can start something of your own.”

“Entrepreneurship and innovation is part of the fabric at ASU. We are a very large university in a large metro area. President Michael Crow’s vision that the university has a responsibility for the vitality of the city it serves. This idea alone is a different perspective – a university can be intentional and aggressive about economic and community progress as opposed to being completely reactionary to change.

“ASU is doing well because it is willing to invest in ideas like this [ASU SkySong] or the ASU Chandler Innovation Center. It’s willing to find partners like the Edson family to invest in students and innovation.”

“How can a university play a role in the startup world? The primary and appropriate role of a university, as I see it, is as a supplier of talent and technology, and connector between talent and technology, and the startup world.

What we try to do is – and this is where we have expertise as a higher ed institution – we know how to ignite that passion, help people explore, and point them in a direction. We give them an opportunity to play, experience and test in a safe environment. We do that exceptionally well.”

“What I have seen far too often is that by the time students come to college, they forget that they even had their own ideas about what they want to bring to the world. No one should wonder, ‘When will I have the opportunity to apply my education in real situations?’ You should be able to apply it right away… before graduation. That is why we went with the “just start” campaign messaging this past year.

To me, the whole Make-Your-Ideas-Happen or “just start” concepts are tied to this believe. It is about, ‘What is your idea and what impact or difference do you want to make today?’ Students having agency over what they do, and how they learn and engage changes everything. Students should not be passively sitting and waiting, but active participants in the learning process. Education isn’t something done to you. It’s what you do for yourself.”

“The greatest gift that my parents gave us was fearlessness. That nothing is beyond knowledge if you apply enough effort and learning. You really could do and be anything. It was only the function of learning and effort. Everybody was equal in that regard.

For me, moving from engineering to business, to analytics and statistics became an accidental wandering path for a good background in understanding the innovation process. I was chasing interesting questions on a broader scale and working with interesting people. I think it’s unfortunate that we get really narrow in our academic pursuits very early. I worry about that.”

“When people think about what the primary mission of a university is, we often stop at education and research. Economic development is often considered as the third leg of the stool. Generally speaking, people who are experts about starting and growing companies, they don’t live inside universities. One of the differences with ASU, and other universities are moving in this direction too, is that we are investing in hiring people inside to help accelerate that.

We need to think about how we demonstrate the value of education. A university can and should serve students and the community around us.”

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