Sometimes executives are moved to make a leap from the comforts of their corner office to the wilds of entrepreneurship. This is even true at MIT Sloan Executive Education, where one of our own team members decided it was time to blaze her own trail.
Colleen Berger is a director of Executive Programs with a successful track record of international business development for MIT, blue chip experience across many divisions at IBM, and early-career experience with small companies and startups. Colleen has been working within the Office of Executive Education since 2014, where she has witnessed the impressive impact that our week-long Entrepreneurship Development Program (EDP) has had on entrepreneurs and their subsequent ventures.
So, in January of 2018, Colleen enrolled herself in EDP as a first step in exploring a business idea that had been brewing in the back of her mind for some time.
Since 1999, EDP has helped thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs around the world bring new innovations to market. Each year, this dynamic, week-long course draws on the vast culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at MIT to provide approximately 100 global entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs with a comprehensive approach to the venture creation process. Thought of as "Shark Tank without the sharks,” this highly rated course includes lectures by senior MIT faculty, visits with high-tech startups, and live case studies presented by successful entrepreneurs.
“It’s an impressive program with so much going on, all at a breakneck pace,” says Colleen. “The week realistically resembles what it’s like to start a venture—never enough time, many moving parts, and the need to remain agile while keeping momentum. If you want to know whether entrepreneurship is right for you, EDP is a great place to test your stamina.”
Within the first few hours of the 2018 session of EDP, on a Sunday afternoon, Colleen had already pitched her business idea to more than 100 strangers.
“On the very first evening of the program, participants are asked to pitch a business idea to the room,” explains Colleen. “The goal is to form teams around these ideas, with people naturally gravitating to the pitches that resonate with them. Once you have a group of 6 or 7 people, your team is formed, and that group works on this idea for the week. And while the business pivoted several times over the course of the week in EDP, many of my peers approached me at the end of the program to say they really liked my original pitch and thought the business had legs. That stuck with me.”
Colleen’s original pitch on that Sunday afternoon—a business that matches the project needs of organizations with teams of talent—is precisely the startup that Colleen decided to launch one year later, named Project 26 LLC. And her first client? MIT, of course.
In January of 2019, Colleen engaged MIT’s Venture Mentoring Services and shared her idea with them. “We worked on the business plan, I received coaching, and then I started the LLC. I spoke with MIT, said this what I’m going to do, and together we decided MIT would be my first client. I have the great fortune of remaining an extended member of the MIT family.”
Project 26 is designed to help companies that have more innovative ideas than they have people to work on them. “Even when companies do capacity planning,” explains Colleen, “and determine they have resources to work on 25 projects, they can’t kill the 26th—it’s inevitably someone’s pet project or too strategic to neglect.” These worthwhile projects might include breaking into new markets, running an innovation pilot, or managing a change effort, which require resources a company simply may not have. Smaller-scale projects might include a marketing or content management initiative, setting up a new contract management system, or facilitating a study tour for a Board of Directors.
“On the flip side, there is a large pool of skilled talent seeking ad hoc projects,” says Colleen, “such as mothers who left the workforce for a few years but who now want to return on their own terms. There is exceptional talent out there that wants to work on the project-by-project basis. Think of this as Uber for professional services.”
Like Uber, Colleen’s business is based on a two-sided platform model that will eventually leverage an algorithm to help match projects with talent. For now, Colleen will assemble teams best suited for her clients. Her company will also provide the project management and operational support necessary to keep projects running smoothly while ensuring the client has a single point of contact responsible for deliverables.
“These projects are often a puzzle of many pieces—subject matter experts that can own their own portion of the project over a three-month period, for example, while also collaborating with the larger team as needed. There is a significant integration component of this that Project 26 can manage and that I think will set us apart from other consulting firms or talent agencies.”
Colleen credits EDP for giving her the confidence to strike out on her own and several of the tools and perspectives necessary to do so. As she continues to build her company, she has seen many of the lessons from the week-long program reflected in her real-world experiences. “For example, potential investors really do look as closely at the CEO and the team members as we were told. They want to make sure the team is credible and that they have complementary skills—not that they are friends.”
She is also aware that the road ahead will have its bumps. “One of the guest speakers during EDP was a highly successful entrepreneur who, along the way, failed multiple times, and miserably. His story was riveting. It proved the need for grit and thick skin. I think I’m ready.”
The next session of the Entrepreneurship Development Program is January 19–24, 2020. Applications are currently being accepted for this one-of-a-kind program. Don’t miss your chance to apply.