On Sept. 1, entrepreneurial veteran Melissa Crounse became founding executive director of The Garage, an 11,000-square-foot space designed for students from any school at Northwestern to experiment, innovate and turns ideas into tangible results. As The Garage begins its first year of existence, NBN sat down with Crounse for a look into what we can expect from Northwestern’s new “innovation incubator.”
What have your first three weeks at The Garage been like?
Very busy. There’s a lot of work to be done. It’s been a lot of meeting faculty, meeting staff, meeting some of the students who were still on campus. I’ve met alumni, I went out and visited Harvard’s i-lab to see what they do out there, and I’ve been networking with companies like Amazon and Google and Rackspace to get some free services for students in this space. So it’s been very busy.
How would you describe the The Garage’s purpose to someone who has never heard of it before?
The Garage is an interdisciplinary hub for entrepreneurship and innovation for all students.
So would you say there’s more of a focus on learning and teaching, or on creating – or do the two go hand in hand?
I do think the two go hand in hand. This is a pretty dynamic space – we have two classroom spaces, and there's a professor coming in this evening to teach. Even for the faculty, I encourage them to do their more innovative classes here. This isn’t for quiet presentations and lectures. This is for breakout groups, interactive classes, experimental classes. I also want to create an environment here where it’s okay to fail. If you’re a student with a bad business idea and learning that your idea didn’t work, if you’re a faculty member coming in and trying a new class and realizing that format didn’t work – I just want this to be a place where people get out of their comfort zone and try new things.
Northwestern was recently named the sixth most innovative university in the world. What do you think makes NU such a cultivating environment for student creativity?
The thing I keep coming back to is this seems to be a really collaborative environment, and I think that may be one of the reasons why [Northwestern] has gotten some of those distinctions. There’s some really strong research that comes from the faculty, and I think that’s driven a lot of the innovation so far. I think what’s been missing is a place and a program to help students foster that same sense of collaboration between the schools – everything is so fragmented here – and to just really give aspiring entrepreneurs a home on campus.
You worked in Silicon Valley before coming to Northwestern. In what ways have your stints at Google and YouTube prepared you to direct The Garage? How will you apply the lessons you learned at those companies?
I think something that’s unique about my career, both in working at the Googles and YouTubes and startups, is an environment of action. There’s some sitting around and thinking and researching about ideas, but then it’s just a lot of just going out there and doing it. And that’s something I want to bring here. Similarly, I want to create a space that feels different. I want it to feel a little bit more like Silicon Valley when you walk in here. So, I’m going to bring my dog to work and we’re going to have free snacks. I just want it to be a fun, creative place where people want to come in and work on their business ideas.
I saw you guys have a mentorship program. How does that work?
We will have one – it’s not necessarily defined right now. But I can tell you some of my ideas. One of the programs we’re going to be offering is we’re going to have entrepreneurs in residence, who are established entrepreneurs who have sold companies, started companies – kind of serial entrepreneur types from the broader Northwestern community. So those individuals are going to be working from here on their next business ventures. In exchange for the free office space we’re offering them, they’re going to be offering office hours and mentorship to students.
I don’t know what the demand is yet from the students. I want everything here to be really student-driven. I’m trying to find people from a diversity of backgrounds. I’m going to be doing [mentoring] myself, in true entrepreneurial spirit. In the Valley we call it “eating your own dog food” – you have to try your product or offering first to experience it as a customer, so I’m going to be doing that as well. I think through those office hours, we will bring in other alumni and experts and people as are needed. For just kind of general mentorship, I’m happy to do that. I know there are a lot of seniors right now who are anxious about job prospects and how that works, so I’m happy to make introductions from my own network or, as I’m making them in the Northwestern community, do that as well.
Do you have specific goals for your first year in charge, or any ultimate goals for The Garage?
I think the long-term goal is to foster a spirit of entrepreneurial thinking. So that means regardless of if you go on to be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever, being able to think entrepreneurially about your role is going to be really, really important for the future. So if I can help students through trying to start a company, or actually starting a company, or taking a class on entrepreneurship, teach them that skillset, if five years from now we have alumni saying, ‘Hey, I learned how to be so great at what I do based partly on my experience at The Garage,’ I think that would be my long-term goal.
So you think it’s fair to say that a lot of the skills required for being a good entrepreneur can be applied to...
To everything. There’s no set path through life anymore, in any profession. The raw skills you need are getting out of your comfort zone, problem solving in a different way, being creative, being organized, and those are all things you learn through the entrepreneurial experience.
I was actually just about to ask what you think the most important entrepreneurial lessons are. Do you have anything else you want to add?
Sure. I think a couple core entrepreneurial lessons are, don’t be shy. I think you should take advantage of the resources Northwestern offers, take advantage of the broader Evanston community, the Chicago community, the Northwestern alumni community. I so often have met entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, usually engineers, who are working on some kind of product. It’s like, 'Have you actually gone and talked to somebody who would be your user?' And they’re like, ‘No no no, we’re going to build it first, then we’ll show it to them.’ But it’s like, ‘No, you should go talk to them and ask them to make sure you’re really solving their problem before you spend all your time building it.’ So, I want to teach Northwestern students those skills of being outgoing and learning that the worst thing, you ask someone for advice or money, that the worst thing they can do is say no, and to get used to that. And then learn that it’s okay to fail. Not every idea is going to be great, and there’s something about going through the process and learning that I think is as valuable as building a successful company.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.