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Studio/E: Exploring the Meaning and Mindset of Entrepreneurship

Garvis and Wiese lead a cohort at the Hill Library, courtesy Studio/E

Co-founders Tom Wiese (left) and Nate Garvis, courtesy Twin Cities Business

Navigating uncertainty with Studio/E, courtesy Studio/E

Studio/E cohort at the Hill Library, courtesy Studio/E

Mention “entrepreneur” and who comes to mind? For many techies, former Apple founder Steve Jobs is top of the list. For other citizens of the creative economy, any number of innovative microbrewers, restaurateurs, creative thinkers, designers, educators, publishers or other business owners come to the fore. For Nate Garvis and Tom Wiese, the best example is the 16th-century Portuguese expedition leader Ferdinand Magellan.

That's because navigation and exploration are at the heart of their Twin Cities-based entrepreneurial experience, known as Studio/E. In collaboration with the James J. Hill Library in downtown St. Paul, and Babson College, a private business school in Wellesley, MA, Studio/E brings 24 participants together for four days of exploration into the meaning and the mindset of entrepreneurship.

The idea is not to provide participants with a roadmap to becoming an entrepreneur, but rather to imbue them with a sense of how entrepreneurs approach and overcome one primary challenge that faces them all—uncertainty.

"When you are entering the unknown—when you want to take a desire, turn it into an idea, put it into action—you don't necessarily have a game plan. You need to take the mindset of a curious explorer," says Garvis, a former vice president of Government Affairs for Target Corporation.

At the same time, for Kaywin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, learning about the “systematic approach” to navigating uncertainty was the most significant takeaway from her experience with Studio/E. Feldman attended to acquire ideas on how to reinvent the museum’s food and retail offerings. Instigating a new entrepreneurial venture “doesn’t need to be chaos,” she says. “You can apply a process and a rigor to a challenge that will help pull things out and make a new path clearer.”

Managing change and ambiguity

The idea behind Studio/E came to Garvis and Wiese a few years ago when the pair, who both grew up in Golden Valley and have known each other since the seventh grade, went for what was supposed to be a short walk in Aspen, Colorado. Five hours later they had come up with the idea for Studio/E.

"We asked ourselves this question: We know all these amazing folks from different sectors, high performers, successful folks,” Garvis says. “What is the one thing that seems to be driving all of them crazy right now? Over the course of that walk, the answer we came up with was change and ambiguity."

For Wiese, an entertainment lawyer, uncertainty was the hurdle he was seeing in all fields. "It felt like the community was getting stuck,” he says. “I work with a lot of executives in town. They were facing expiring business models and that was causing confusion. And I felt a great need to help leaders come up with a way to navigate better."

Wiese and Garvis decided the Twin Cities needed a program to help corporate and nonprofit leaders navigate that uncertainty and train them in a way of thinking different from traditional managerial thinking, which is more about creating a plan and putting that plan into action. But what about when the unexpected happens and the entire landscape on which that plan was based no longer exists? For Wiese and Garvis, that’s where the entrepreneurial mindset comes into play.

The trait that entrepreneurs share, says Garvis, is that they are trained to look at what’s in front of them very differently. And he and Wiese feel like all leaders should have that training in their arsenal. And so out of that walk Studio/E was born.

Interactivity outside of one’s discipline

Every six months, Wiese and Garvis create two cohorts of 24 people they select from a pool of applicants. The selected candidates are a mix of corporate executives and nonprofit leaders, along with individuals who are undertaking their own entrepreneurial endeavors.

Although most of the participants come from in and around the Twin Cities, Studio/E welcomes all. Garvis says the key is not who you are or what organization you work for, but that you are doing something interesting and want to learn. "It doesn't matter if you are a 20 year old or you're a 50 year old, whether you work in a business or a nonprofit."

Studio/E, Garvis continues, creates a learning “space in our community in which individuals come together, then go have an impact on their institutions or businesses." Studio/E also has, he adds, a strict “no jerks policy.”

For Wiese, having the right mix of people in Studio/E is essential: "Most problems that exist right now need to be solved beyond the borders of one’s own discipline. You need people that look at problems differently. And the best way to do that is to have a scientist in with a retailer and an accountant."

Studio/E sessions are spread out over a year and held in the James J. Hill Reference Library. Each participant pitches their idea or concept to the group and then develops it, whether it's something they are planning to take back to their employer or pursue on their own.

Wiese and Garvis, along with professors from Babson College and representatives from other Studio/E partners (Activ8 in St. Paul, the Prouty Project in Minneapolis and Jump Associates in New York City), serve as guides. In the first day participants learn about the entrepreneurial mindset. On day two, participants work on their idea and make it unique.

Day three is when participants confront the obstacles, the possibility of failure, and decide what risks they are willing to take to pursue their idea. On day four, they discuss who they’ll need to enroll as partners to help them turn their idea into reality.

Garvis says the four days are light on lecture and heavy on interaction, with participants getting feedback from each other. Food, music, exercise and fun are also part of the experience. Garvis says the experience is less like school and “more like yoga.”

An intellectual zipline

Luz Maria Frias, vice president of Community Philanthropy for the Minneapolis Foundation, attended Studio/E to work on a project called Students Organizing for Equity, which is being funded by the Minneapolis Foundation and will launch this summer. The project involves training youth of color to become community organizers in north and south Minneapolis.

For Frias, receiving feedback from a variety of professionals was essential. "Studio/E provided me with a larger circle of experience by including people with different skills and strategies, who also helped navigate the experience,” she says. “Rather than navigating a problem on your own, you are surrounded by people looking at your problem in different ways."

Frias also credits Studio/E with providing a safe environment for confronting and overcoming obstacles. "It's an interesting journey that you take,” she explains. “You're kind of flailing along on day one, then there's a clarity that just clicks at the end." There's no zip line, she jokes, but Studio/E is the intellectual equivalent of that experience.

Wiese wants participants to come away from Studio/E with three things: a new network of people outside their field, the ability to be both a manager and a navigator (what he calls dual literacy), and the understanding that they are not the only ones dealing with uncertainty.

“Just knowing that change, uncertainty and ambiguity are happening not only in your sector but everywhere,” Wiese says, “is incredibly powerful.”

Click here to learn more about the Studio/E application process.

Chris Dall is a freelance writer and former radio producer. He lives in St. Louis Park.

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