Jack Brittain is a professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship & Strategy at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, as well as the Pierre Lassonde Presidential Chair in Entrepreneurship. He designed the Master of Business Creation program, a partnership between the Eccles School and the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, which was recognized by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International) with the 2020 Innovations That Inspire Award, a first for the Eccles School.
Instrumental in the founding of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute and creating its programs that are nationally recognized today, Brittain has also had a distinguished career that includes serving as a University of Utah vice president, as dean of the Eccles School for 10 years (1999-2009), serving the community on various non-profit and government boards, teaching in overseas executive programs across Europe and Asia, and serving on Governor’s Office of Economic Development Board at home in Utah. In his current roles at the University of Utah, Brittain leverages his long list of accomplishments to his students’ benefit: he hopes to help each student build a solid foundation, enrich their learning experience, and help them conquer real-world problems with confidence.
What made you become a faculty member?
Brittain: It was not an obvious career for me. I’m an extreme introvert. So introverted that, in undergrad, if I had classes with required presentations, I dropped the class and switched into something else. I was terrified to speak in class, and terrified of the professors, too. It continued even after making friends with some of the faculty and deciding to go into the Ph.D. program and start doing research: As a Ph.D. student at Berkeley, I had to teach an undergraduate class and threw up before every single session because I was so nervous!
I was a first-generation college student. My father was the first person in our family to graduate from high school. My mother dropped out after her freshman year in high school, and I was born when she was a teenager. None of my grandparents completed high school, which was common in their time. So, overall, the college thing was quite a mystery to my family. My mother was convinced education was the way to get ahead. She made sure her kids went to college, and so I and two of my sisters went to Berkeley. I came out of that experience a true believer in education and its capacity to transform lives. I found that’s what I wanted to do. It’s been a privilege to spend my life as a college professor. And I do not throw up before classes anymore.
Is there a mistake or misstep that many entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial students consistently make? If so, how can it be avoided?
Brittain: We see students get too deep into an idea too soon. Then, later on, they have a really hard time letting go of it. One of the things we know about human beings cognitively is that if they have to defend something, their belief gets strengthened in the defense process. In entrepreneurship, you’re constantly being forced to defend your ideas, and, in the process, you build up rationalizations that support them. This gets to the point where you can’t take criticism, where you’re stuck.
At Lassonde and in the MBC program, we’ve addressed this with better mentoring. Students often have a hard time accessing quality mentoring, so they get feedback from their friends, who tell them their ideas are wonderful — getting honest feedback from friends or peer groups can be really difficult.
Our business competitions do a pretty good job of connecting students to mentors who give good, honest feedback. We have board meetings for every one of our companies in the Master of Business Creation, where each student has five mentors with different perspectives, truly investing brainpower and emotion into helping these companies succeed. The intensity of that is extraordinarily hard to replicate. It is something that is unique about our program, the mentoring intensity from very experienced entrepreneurs.
What does success look like for entrepreneurs? Is it quantitative or what?
Brittain: Too often, we see the big stories about people who are “overnight successes.” Lassonde and our work here is a good example of that: it took us nearly 20 years to build this thing. There tends to be the short version of the entrepreneurial story that’s summarized as “look, I had this great idea and now I have wealth, success, and influence.” It does not work this way for anyone, and it did not work this way for Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or Elon Musk.
For me, working with student entrepreneurs, success is what they are able to learn, understand, and what they take into their professional life. This is our focus, preparing students to succeed on whatever career path they follow. Their goals, not ours.
Even if they don’t end up running or owning their own business — if instead they’re a really innovative manager or product creator — to me, that’s a huge success. I don’t see things on the “traditional” metric of entrepreneurship success. It’s always great to have your business idea funded, but what I really care about is that every single one of our students leave with lessons learned and able to point to worthwhile experiences in their educational journey.
What was the most important entrepreneurial skill that someone taught you? Why?
Brittain: There are two distinct people that taught me very important lessons, but in very different ways.
I loved playing basketball when I was younger. I did all my education at UC Berkeley. Berkeley offered an advanced basketball course each quarter, and I registered for it every time — I think I took it 36 times. Coach Kite taught the course. Because it was an advanced course, we weren’t learning the skills of the game, dribbling, shooting, or passing. The focus was working productively as teams using the fundamental skills we had all developed earlier in life. Nearing the end of my degrees, I was approaching 30, playing with these 18-year-old kids. But I kept coming back each quarter, and the coach kept letting me. I just wouldn’t quit, and he started using me as an assistant because I was learning a lot about teams in my programs. Playing basketball, I learned the power of combining a group of disparate individuals with complementary skillsets and the performance potential in the team. This is critical to successfully launching a startup.
Then there was John Freeman, a young faculty member when I was an MBA student. He was only a second-year assistant professor, so junior that none of the Ph.D. students wanted to work with him. He noticed how quiet and introverted I was, but after he saw promise in one of my papers, he asked me to be his research assistant. He saw something in the raw and unpolished introvert that was me at 22. I joined the Ph.D. program at Berkeley, and we some published papers together. He ended up being not only my mentor, but my champion and friend. We were a total mismatch in terms of our backgrounds, but it worked. I could disagree with him, and he’d disagree with me, and we’d both get something out of it. What I learned from him is that ideas are starting points, not ending points. It is what you do with the idea, how you develop it, the rub of conflict, and the learning along the way that makes an idea valuable. Entrepreneurship is a journey, and success along the way is understanding how to create value with whatever idea is your starting point.
What do you want students to leave your classes or conversations with?
Brittain: It’s an objective for the entire university that every graduated student will have at least one faculty member or staff who can write letters of recommendation or give them career and education advice.
It’s incredibly important for every student who goes through the University of Utah to have at least one person who knows them. I was so introverted that it would have been very easy to let me slip through the cracks. But I had professors and staff who were committed to not letting that happen. In my education, it came down to my basketball coach and my research mentor.
That’s one of the things that distresses me about the world of higher education: class sizes have grown, and relationships with professors have become depersonalized. I make an effort each class session, each semester, and each year to connect with students, whether or not they’re in my field of study, because those relationships are the reason I am where I am today.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Brittain: Professionally, without a doubt, everything we’ve done with Lassonde. Seeing all of that work, from the idea in 2000 for the Lassonde New Venture Development Center, to now, a full-blown entrepreneurship institute, is very moving. Thinking about it, I get a little tear in my eye; I am so proud of it all.
I give huge credit to Troy D’Ambrosio, who has been a partner at every step – built something that’s enduring and permanent, that enriches the lives of students and gives them opportunities they can’t find any other place. Here, at the University of Utah. I’ve done other things in my career. I’ve had academic success, award-winning publications and stuff, but to me, those are so transitory. This platform, Lassonde, has the capacity itself to learn and do new things, and, to me, that’s career-defining. It’s been an extraordinary experience, and I feel incredibly privileged to be part of it.