David Townsend, assistant professor of management at the Pamplin College of Business, may not be able to settle the debate about whether entrepreneurship can be taught in the classroom, but he does recognize its core important in cultivating student innovators.
“I think the edge at Virginia Tech is we take experiential learning very seriously,” he said. “In terms of a comprehensive strategy, there are a very few schools around the world that have a broad focus on experiential learning through classroom activities, class projects, living-learning communities, and engagement with practicing entrepreneurs.”
Townsend, a Yorktown, Virginia native, returned to work in his home state in 2014 following teaching stints at the University of Oklahoma, where he earned a doctorate, and at North Carolina State University. He landed at Virginia Tech after seeking a position at a university with a long-term growth trajectory in innovation and entrepreneurship.
Virginia Tech “very much hits the sweet spot for me,” he explained.
Townsend spent his first year in Blacksburg teaching a cohort of freshmen in the Innovate Living Learning community. Now many of the community’s residents pass through his classroom or he gets to know them in an advisory capacity.
Townsend, the Union Junior Faculty Fellow in Entrepreneurship, currently teaches the entry course in the entrepreneurship curriculum. The focus of this class is on teaching the students the process of starting a new venture.
His research is focused on three major areas: crowdfunding, organizing strategies for startups, and on how the strategies of entrepreneurial ventures impact the evolution of markets and industries in which the venture is operating.
Crowdfunding platforms, such as Tilt and Kickstarter, “allow companies to engage with customers and can almost presell the product,” Townsend said. “It solves a problem, but creates other difficulties and challenges.”
Townsend seeks to understand customers’ explicit or sometimes unspoken expectations of a company influence how they engage with the company during the crowdfunding process. He referenced the case of Oculus Rift, a crowdfunded multimillion dollar developer of 3D goggles, that faced major backlash when sold to Facebook.
In other research pursuits, Townsend studies the best practices for organizing companies under various environmental conditions, and he examines the ways ideas and innovations transform companies’ operations in specialized industries, such as gaming.
One question Townsend seeks to answer is, “Given the resource constraints entrepreneurs often face early on, how do you operate without some of the traditional levels of organization?”
Townsend’s work has been published in top entrepreneurship and management journals as well as mainstream outlets, such as newyorktimes.com and BusinessWeek.
Townsend is a proponent of the Apex Systems Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, where he is involved in advising student teams in skills competitions and startups.
Apex CIE has “resources that can engage students,” Townsend said. “The living learning element is crucial and rare, not just hypothetical. There is the opportunity to really build some lifelong connections.”
Townsend believes entrepreneurship will be a core engine that drives the university in coming years.
“There are so many opportunities for students in a safe environment,” he said.
Townsend points to the high level of startup activity on campus; he projects about 50 student-run ventures.
“You have to do it to learn it,” he said.
Written by Courtney Cutright