MIT's motto is "Mens et Manus" which is Latin for "Mind and Hand". I view it as a method of education underpinned by a learning by doing mantra. This philosophy is core to my mentoring thesis.
My belief is that knowledge should permeate beyond book smarts. Groundbreaking scientists make discoveries when they investigate a hunch. Brilliant engineers anticipate future challenges for a new design before oversights cause upsets in production. Successful entrepreneurs have a feel for markets that do not even exist yet. Solving canned problem sets from a course book can only take one so far. Developing a gut instinct takes real world trial and error.
I teach entrepreneurship at MIT as a mentor for the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund. I run small group sessions on entrepreneurship once a month and run four individual coaching sessions per month with advanced student teams. I have continued this work for 7 years and mentored nearly 60 student teams. I have been fortunate to have already seen some of my students go on to raise millions to fund their new ventures.
I spent part of my graduate career as an assistant for the legendary Unified Engineering course. "Unified" is the introductory MIT Aero/Astro engineering course that unifies the topics of structures, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and signals and systems. I helped teach the thermodynamics section of the course. My role included teaching, assisting students during office hours, helping develop and evaluate problem sets and exam material, and assisting in labs.
In addition to formal programs I guest lecturer and present at multiple institutions typically on the topic of space resources, exploration, and mining. To see my list of presentations, please see my publications page.
Perhaps some of the most rewarding experiences have been technical mentorship of research students. During graduate school, I mentored 6 undergraduate students on research projects relating to my work. Working with motivated students on research projects has challenged me to distill complex topics to digestible concepts and to foster the independence of individual contributors. I try to avoid assigning undergraduates to projects that are simply data processing tasks or other uncreative endeavors because these types of things do not expose them to the research process and the essence of academic discovery. My philosophy is to help guide students through the research process but to also give them freedom to form their own hypothesis and explore it by applying the scientific method.
Explaining the parts of a jet turbine engine before the jet engine lab experiment.
Beyond the Classroom
How can we help students develop their gut instinct? Give them the opportunity to apply their knowledge, give them permission to fail, and remove and barriers from them getting back up and trying again.
This is why I find programs such as the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund so important. This is an MIT program to fund students to explore new ideas in entrepreneurship. Students are allotted funding of $1000 that can be increased up to $25000 as their project progresses. A key feature of the program is that it is non-competitive. Nearly every student with an idea is admitted to begin their entrepreneurial journey. Opportunities for additional funding is at their team's own pace and maturity. It is a breath of fresh air in an era where entrepreneurship competitions with cash prizes are the must have for "innovative" universities. The non-competitive aspect of Sandbox promotes an environment of collaboration between teams a reduces the risk of trying an idea that seems wacky at first. This is where true innoation happens.
I volunteered with this program for the past 7 years and mentored over 60 different student teams. There have been many company successes, but the biggest reward is watching the students grow as the navigate the actual creation of a real company. They work to identify a minimum viable product, build their team, prioritize, talk with customers, incorporate, and pilot products. Sometimes classes get in the way, which is fine. Sandbox is a program designed to enhance education. Classes come first. Sometimes the product does not work out and we have no problem with letting the team pivot. Some students even decide that entrepreneurship isn't for them. That is as valuable to learn as anything. By removing barriers to participation, reducing the consequences of failure, and facilitating learning by doing, we have enabled hundreds of students to learn about tech entrepreneurship and develop their instincts.
So how do we seamlessly integrate this philosophy into the standard engineering undergraduate experience? How do educators evaluate learning when failure is key to growth? How does an entrepreneur continue to grow and strengthen his team in a high growth environment?
High-Growth Startups and High-Growth Contributors
Why am I so passionate about entrepreneurship and dedicate so much time to mentoring students driven to take on this adventure? Entrepreneurship embodies the Mens et Manus philosophy both technically and operationally. There is no greater hands-on challenge than simultaneously building a product, discovering a market, and constructing a functional business. The biggest challenge for new entrepreneurs is focusing on the right things. Once a product market fit is discovered, things take off quickly.
Each moment at Lunar Outpost is packed to the brim "firsts" for each individual and their teams. The very nature of building the first rover to explore the South Pole of the moon dictates that by necessity. My focus when working with members of our rapidly growing team (now nearly 70 people!) is to coach each individual to operate in a way that each advancement in know-how is translated to learning for the entire business. Each teammate is key to creating a positive reinforcement flywheel in business growth by building systems and processes that improve business efficiency and creativity. I encourage this by openly sharing the business context of our company goals and how the sum of individual actions enable our collective success for exploring the lunar surface and making a positive environmental impact on Earth.
As a high-growth startup, Lunar Outpost attracts many high-growth individuals. I am not a fan of the term "climbers" mostly because it insinuates those focused on climbing a corporate ladder. Frankly, we are lean and relatively flat, there is not much of a "ladder" to climb. However, anyone who wants to grow quickly in skills and experience, has come to the right place. The most important thing when fostering the best in high-growth individuals is to give them ownership of a difficult problem and room to invent. I learned in graduate school that letting go of a desire to micromanage an outcome is key to getting out of the way of top performers so that they can feel truly fulfilled by their success. Our teams continue to impress me each day with solutions far more elegant than I could ever imagened.
Copyright 2015-2023 Forrest E. Meyen Image Header Credit: NASA Image of the Day. Jan 12, 2014.