Rebuilding After the Pandemic

The Stanford Graduate School of Business hosts a free online program that urges entrepreneurs to solve problems caused by the coronavirus.

Students participate in Stanford Rebuild, an online innovation sprint that invited entrepreneurs to address coronavirus-related challenges.

 

AS THE COVID-19 pandemic rages on, business schools everywhere are finding creative ways to join the fight against it. Among them is the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) in California, which recently hosted an eight-week guided innovation sprint called Stanford Rebuild. The program invited entrepreneurs from around the globe to develop business ideas that would address challenges posed by the virus.

“Periods of disruption bring to light new problems and challenges that innovators can help address. Crises can also be a source of new opportunities as customer needs and pain points change,” explains Stefanos Zenios, the co-director of Stanford GSB’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. He is also the Investment Group of Santa Barbara Professor of Entrepreneurship and professor of operations, information and technology.

Because the pandemic made in-person gatherings risky, the Stanford GSB held the program online—which enabled the school to engage entrepreneurs from around the world. While the largest group came from the U.S., significant numbers also participated from India, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and Mexico, and additional entrepreneurs joined in from Singapore, Nigeria, Spain, Korea, South Africa, Russia, and Albania.

Anyone over 13 was eligible to apply. Zenios says, “We were delighted to have several teenagers complete the program. A wonderful team of 15-year-olds participated in our final showcase.”

The program was based on Stanford Embark, an interactive entrepreneurial toolkit that helps entrepreneurs explore whether and how they can turn their ideas into viable businesses. While the toolkit is usually a subscription-based service, it was offered free to participants in the Rebuild program.

“Stanford Rebuild was about having impact,” says Zenios. “Offering it free of charge was vital to being able to achieve this. Being able to make our talent and resources available at a time of crisis was a big motivation for us.”

WORKSHOPS AND ITERATIONS

Entrepreneurs who wanted to participate in Rebuild were encouraged to submit project ideas within four broad categories—Reimagine Organizations, Reinforce Healthcare Systems, Revitalize the Workplace, and Redesign Human Wellbeing. Within these categories, they were expected to tackle challenges such as implementing scalable and socially responsible testing and contact tracing, redesigning childcare and early education, addressing the mental health impact of social distancing, and supporting small businesses.

“It was obvious from the earliest days of the pandemic that these were some of the areas in which its impact would be most keenly felt,” says Zenios. However, participants could work on projects from other sectors as long as those projects were related to COVID-19 recovery. “We realize that communities will face different challenges, so we wanted participants to look at the barriers their communities face and pursue projects that have great potential for impact.”

The program kicked off in June 2020 with a series of inspirational online events. During the first week, participants listened to experts and thought leaders discuss the challenges and opportunities associated with COVID-19.

PARTICIPANTS TACKLED CHALLENGES SUCH AS IMPLEMENTING SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE TESTING AND SUPPORTING SMALL BUSINESSES.

Over the next eight weeks, the teams worked on their own to test and revise their ideas. During that time, they could attend additional workshops and educational talks offered by Stanford faculty. Faculty also periodically reviewed the work of two or three teams and shared information about their progress to help other groups refine their own projects and navigate common barriers.

“The main challenge teams faced was iterating in order to find a solution that delivered the correct value to the participants’ markets and audience,” says Zenios. “Often groups settled on one idea and then had to pivot to better achieve market fit.”

SHOWCASE AND FEEDBACK

After the eight-week refinement period, students prepared to pitch their ideas. The ideas representing the most promising solutions were included in a final live virtual showcase—a global online event. “We were delighted to see a wide range of sectors and ideas represented,” says Zenios. “We showcased our top 11 projects, and we could easily have hosted three or four showcases of similar quality.”

Three panelists reviewed the projects in the showcase and offered feedback to the teams to help them further develop their ideas. Panelists included Jason Scott, head of the Startup Developer Ecosystem at Google; Karin Meyer, a fellow at Stanford’s Distinguished Career Institute; and Federico Antoni, a Stanford GSB lecturer and partner at the venture capital firm ALLVP.

The showcase event also included other activities, such as a panel discussion where veteran founders described why and how they took the leap into entrepreneurship, and a conversation between Zenios and marketing professor Jim Lattin about what comes next in the innovation process.

School officials now are considering how they might integrate some of the lessons they have learned from Stanford Rebuild into the school’s regular programs. “Obviously, we hope that, come next summer, we won’t be in a position where a program such as Rebuild is necessary,” says Zenios. “But we are looking at whether we can adapt the model to support innovation more broadly and address other challenge areas.”

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