In 1999, Joshua Ross was a bit like the brand-new Daniels College of Business building: The structure was there, but workers were still touching up the paint and securing some ceiling tiles as he sat in classes for his MBA in information technology.
Ross had never planned to become an entrepreneur, much less the University of Denver’s director of entrepreneurship programs. But with the connections he gained as a student, he launched a successful company to provide tech support to small businesses. He taught some classes at Daniels on the side.
After selling the company in 2011, Ross received an email from Stephen Haag, his former Java instructor and colleague. Haag was launching an entrepreneurial contest, the Madden Challenge, and a new course called Gateway to Business. He wanted Ross to teach it.
“I am 100% in,” Ross remembers telling him. “[The opportunity] combined business, technology and entrepreneurship, but most importantly it took all of this theory and business fundamentals and provided a practical application for it. And I’ve always felt that’s missed a lot in academia.”
In the years since, Ross has helped strengthen DU’s Office of Entrepreneurship, teaching everything from cloud technology to WordPress and helping design the Fourth Industrial Revolution class.
When Haag stepped down as director of entrepreneurship in March, Ross took the wheel — right as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed DU classes and activities online for the spring term. In an interview with the DU Newsroom, Ross shared his thoughts on what it means to be an entrepreneur in this day and age and the role higher education plays in preparing them.
Your LinkedIn profile indicates you got a bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado Boulder, but it says you studied communication, physics, philosophy, history and business. Was entrepreneurship on your mind then?
When you’re an 18-year-old, you have no idea what you want to do with your life. When I approached CU, I loved physics in high school so I thought I would take physics in college. I wanted to take [classes in] the things I wanted to know more about. At a certain time, you have to come up with a major. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I did know one thing. I knew regardless of what I did, I should be able to write well and speak effectively. CU has a great communication program, so I became a communication major.
We often hear at DU, through organizations like Project X-ITE, that you don’t need to be a business major to be involved with a startup.
We are trying so hard to convey that message across the University. You could be that student where entrepreneurship is in your blood from the day you’re born. But there’s also a huge group of students [who] just want to explore. They want to learn about design thinking and create that entrepreneurial mindset that should be used no matter what you do in your career. And what we want to do, through Project X-ITE and the Office of Entrepreneurship, is let everybody know there’s an opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship in whichever way you’re most comfortable, and it’s accessible and inclusive to everyone.
In terms of entrepreneurship, what do you think has changed since you started up2speed in 2003?
When I started up2speed and we started supporting customers who needed a technology infrastructure to start a business, … there was a lot of expense. You could get up to $200,000 very quickly before you even wrote one line of code. There was a huge barrier to entry to build a startup. This thing called the cloud has changed all of that. For businesses that want to spend on some technology idea [today], that cost is around $5,000-$6,000. If you’re trying to validate an idea, raising $200,000 is very difficult. Raising $5,000 is a lot easier.
There’s [also] just a lot of people engaging in entrepreneurship. There’s a lot of different meetups, different courses, different methodologies that are out there now that weren’t out there in 2003 or 2004.
Has anything stayed the same since then?
The core idea of you need to identify an opportunity, an unmet need for a problem and you need to figure out how to solve it. You need to test; you need to identify who your target market is. If you don’t understand who your target market is and the value proposition that you are providing, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. That hasn’t changed.
How do you think the pandemic will influence the entrepreneurship curriculum in the short and long term?
COVID-19, even when we get back to normal, is going to materially change the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we learn, the way we travel, the way we congregate. I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for services and products in this new way, with this new approach. The entrepreneur looks at problems as opportunities, and I think that’s what we need to do.
In terms of curriculum and learning, I think what it’s taught us is we need to be very mindful about what we’re providing students and the quality of what we’re providing and how we teach it and how we integrate technology into our teaching. How are we going to differentiate ourselves and use this technology to make this experience better?
In a Q&A with Daniels this summer, you are quoted as saying, “This is the most exciting time to be an entrepreneur.” Why is that?
I think this is the most exciting time to be an entrepreneur because of the technology that’s available. The Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies are starting to weave themselves into the fabric of our lives. Everything we do connects to technology in some way. And while there are some concerns and risk, there’s also an opportunity to take these technologies to help improve the way we do things, help improve processes and the way we live our lives.
How does it feel taking over for Stephen Haag given your relationship and experience with him?
I’m not going to lie, I’m sad we’re not working as closely as we were together. When he told me he was stepping down, it was like a punch in the gut. But if you look at what Stephen created around Gateway [to Business] and the Fourth Industrial Revolution [courses] and the entrepreneurship minor, this is what everybody is talking about around the University of Denver. Stephen is a true visionary in terms of the program. I think he’s just resting, and he’s coming back to show us more.
While I feel honored to step in his shoes, by no means do I feel I can fill them. I’m just doing my best to move the vision along.
I think I’m wrong about stepping in his shoes because, actually, he doesn’t wear shoes.
That’s a good point. Stepping into his flip flops.