Tina Ziemek is a computer science Ph.D., startup founder, and adjunct instructor in the University of Utah’s Department of Entrepreneurship & Strategy in the David Eccles School of Business.
Ziemek spent years in Silicon Valley working for various startups and entrepreneurs before deciding to pursue her own venture. She brings a unique background in games and design to the courses she teaches and first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to see entrepreneurs succeed (and fail). To Ziemek, being an entrepreneur is about being well-rounded, responsible, and, most importantly, human.
How did you arrive at the University of Utah? What brought you here?
Ziemek: Sometimes life chooses for you. I wish I had planned everything, had the foresight to know what was going to happen to me, but I can’t take all the credit. I did my Ph.D. at the U and decided to work in industry in northern California, just doing my own thing. I worked on startup after startup, and thought “I can’t do much worse. Let’s go for it,” and found a community of supportive, innovative entrepreneurs back on this campus.
I started at what was to become the Foundry at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, a startup program at the Eccles School, as an entrepreneur myself, before I started to lead teams and cohorts. I had toyed with the idea of teaching computer science, since that was my Ph.D., but it always came back to entrepreneurship for me.
What has been your favorite course to teach?
Ziemek: I tend to like classes and lectures where we get to dive deep into studying our reactions to events. People like to blame other people when something goes wrong — in our startups and otherwise. We gravitate toward those easy answers, especially those that take the focus off of us. As an entrepreneur and as an educator, I feel like what I am best positioned to help students do is combat those two attitudes: it’s probably not someone else’s fault, and the answer will probably require a lot of hard work from you to find. This is why I enjoy the Foundry so much. It’s set up with such honest cadence, where we can encourage students — and they can encourage each other — to take more productive perspectives on their situations.
It’s often said that when it comes to entrepreneurship, practical experience is best. What’s the advantage of an academic background in entrepreneurship?
Ziemek: I agree with that perspective if the entrepreneur is successful. If every entrepreneurship student launched their businesses, no problem, we’d have no students. They’d all be out working on their companies, starting new businesses.
There are plenty of technical skills and knowledge you can pick up through YouTube or books, but what you’re missing is the faculty and peer support. That’s something I always come back to: I can’t understand who I am, or what I am doing, without looking at and through other people.
That’s what you get with the academic side of things.
You can call us your professors or coaches, whatever you’d like, but we’re here for a reason, and so are your peer groups. We can help you see things in yourself and your work that would take years to discover on your own.
What are the risks associated with entrepreneurship? What struggles did you face that you may not have expected?
Ziemek: There is so much at stake for an entrepreneur. It’s a lot more serious than I think many budding entrepreneurs realize, students and otherwise. The startup culture is definitely glorified and sanitized. We’ll talk about the risk of losing money or time, but everything costs money and takes time. This is bigger than that. I’ve watched people lose their relationships, their families, their wellbeing, their lives in pursuit of some big idea.
Seeing all of these scenarios play out is one of the main reasons that I’m an educator in this field: it doesn’t have to be like that. That’s how it was, sure, but doesn’t have to be how it is. Even after all of this, I still chose to pursue entrepreneurship for the reason that almost all of us do: no other field or industry is satisfying enough. I think that’s perfectly fine, and exciting to find something you’re so passionate about. But it’s important that you consistently check in with yourself, see where you’re placing your value, and if it makes the most sense at the time.
What does success look like for entrepreneurs? Is it quantitative or what?
Ziemek: I think that’s a really good question for the entrepreneurs to ask themselves. I think we can, and should, have different answers. I’m tired of popular culture dictating what success is for someone. Five years ago, I remember the tagline being something along “save the world,” you know, because being profitable wasn’t enough, now you have to be a superhero. The expectation now is to become a unicorn, which I think is such a draining pressure to put on someone.
I’m very passionate about entrepreneurs setting their own goals based on what they know about themselves. Identify your vision for your firm, what environment you’re in, and what you think you can really accomplish.
I know that can be a frustrating answer, especially as an entrepreneur myself. Sometimes I wish I could be a basketball player or something where the rules were clearly outlined, where I always knew what I was supposed to do. If I could just memorize drills, knew what the court looked like, and could just master that. Then I remember how boring that would be. I’m grateful for people who love that kind of work, and who are good at it, too, but there’s no fun in that for me.
In your role as an educator at the Eccles School, how do you measure your success? How do you decide if your semester was or was not successful?
Ziemek: I definitely don’t judge it by the students’ grades. I know some professors look at their average, and if it’s high, decide that they did really well. What’s more important to me is what was actually learned. How many insightful discussions did we have? How much did I learn from each class session? It’s not about me droning on and the students regurgitating the information, it’s about having new thoughts, developing new perspectives.
What skills do you want students leaving your classes or conversations with?
Ziemek: I spend my semester getting students on the “path to practice.”
I don’t know what it’s like to be young right now, but you’ve been faced with so much ambiguity and uncertainty. With all of that, you have to have a certain attitude about failure. Sometimes, you just have to laugh.
That kind of comfortability with yourself is achieved through introspection. Students push back on that, thinking it’s going to be scary to go inwards and really look at yourself, but it ends up being quite enlightening. It’s especially important for entrepreneurs, who will be faced over and over with challenging situations. It’s important that you’re listening to what the data is saying, to developers and users and the external world, but even more so to what you’re thinking and feeling throughout the process.
How did you decide to become an entrepreneur? Did you have someone guiding your path?
Ziemek: I definitely found this career path on my own, but that’s not to discount all the people that took turns helping me along the way.
There’s a notion that gets thrown around about mentors, that you have to have one to be successful. For a while, I subscribed to that, looking at all my professors and superiors wondering “are you my mentor?” That attitude can morph into “are you my investor?” and playing that game gets really exhausting. I found that I couldn’t please everyone, and that a Fairy Godmother wasn’t coming to wave a wand and fix everything in my startup.
I learned to listen more closely to those around me, weigh advice and follow the path that made the most sense. Many different people, from professors to friends to colleagues, influenced the course I eventually took, but there wasn’t a single person who outlined my beliefs or decisions, and I think that’s the beauty of my story and stories like it.
What’s the purpose of entrepreneurship?
Ziemek: That’s like asking “what’s the purpose of life?’” Entrepreneurship gives us the chance to be creative, to think in different ways, to try to make other people’s lives easier. Breathing new ideas into the world is such a fun thing to do.