Interview with Bocconi's rector, Gianmario Verona, on the theme of Entrepreneurship & Innovation
Corentin Bertin & Lucia Casotto
November 12, 2021
You come from the closed world of academia: when did you become passionate about entrepreneurship and why do you think it’s important that students learn about it?
Well, it all started when I was a student. In the early 90s, during my period of concentration, I was running into interesting professors and stimulating papers related to innovation management. At that time, it was possible to see the first embryonic evolution of this incoming technological revolution that was at our door: the internet. This topic started to catch my attention, and for my dissertation I decided to focus on that. Soon I became a research assistant here in Bocconi, and one thing after another, I became more and more engaged in it and I started to contemplate the idea of attending a PhD program in the field of innovation management. During this experience I had the chance to spend some time in the United States, where I could meet numerous successful entrepreneurs and smart people working in the field, and then in Copenhagen, working with companies that were leaders in the transformation from mechanical to digital, becoming even more involved in it.
Now we are in 2021, and we are living inside this digital transformation that I had the opportunity to see embryonically. Then, to this digital aspect we have the addendum, just as important, of sustainability, the incredible challenge we have these days to make the world a better place. Therefore, I p ersonally believe that there is a lot of room for engaging in new ventures and I always try to explain, in my courses, or when I write a paper or when I speak, that we really are at the beginning of this new industrial revolution. Everything still has to be written, and we are also in the era in which the cloud is giving us the opportunity to use more and more powerful algorithms: this will give us more knowledge and make us keener on creating technologies that are consistent with climate change. We are living in a period very similar to the 50s, 60s and 70s of the last century, when most of the big companies and big brands were created globally, so I think it is very important to constantly cultivate entrepreneurship in new generations. Not to mention— this University has been founded by an entrepreneur, so I think it is in its DNA to push students towards not only good policy making and good management, but also good entrepreneurship. We are trying to carry this forward in many of our courses and activities, so I am very happy that you, with your activity, put into action opportunities related to this.
In your 20 years of teaching innovation & management, how did your courses evolve? How do you keep your class up to date, in a very fast-paced world? Do you look at world events, entrepreneurs’ news, academic publications?
A lot. In my opinion, with the passing of time people have more experience, see more examples, and keep learning new things, therefore become in some way better. For example, my way of teaching has been substantially informed by my experience in the US. In fact, when I was a young associate professor, I was more used to the EU, top down, way of teaching. Then I evolved towards a more bottom-up approach, much more inductive, which is more typical of what I have seen in some of the schools where I had the opportunity to serve, either as a research assistant or as a visiting professor, particularly Tuck School of Business and Sloan School of Management. I started to teach through cases, and I strongly believe in the importance of having students discussing or debating. I like it when I myself am surprised by the solutions we come to during some case discussions, that were not anticipated before. I feel that this will be more and more the way we should teach in the future, also thanks to the help of digital technology, and this is something that in Bocconi we are already experimenting in a few courses. For example, in one of the classes where I teach, we are trying to implement the flipped model, like they call it in the United States, which consists in adding some sessions completely online and completely theoretical and then using in person sessions to debate even more. I am convinced that this is one of the ways in which we should evolve in general, independently from innovation management and entrepreneurship. But I would say that my way of teaching has improved a lot, and in the future it will change even more thanks to technology and digital instruments.
Are the courses that were created on Coursera part of that plan of becoming a flipped university?
I would say that Coursera’s model, called MOOC, which stands for Massive Open Online Courses, is not exactly the idea we have. There are three models of digital education according to my understanding. The oldest model, which I think will be soon no longer used, is exactly the mooc, a way to provide massive content, not in depth but rather standard. It consists of courses that are typically modular, with few sessions and a certificate at the end. The second model is with videos on demand, in which the classes are almost like tv series: students can pay for them and for a certificate that proves they reached certain results. This model is more specialized and less massive, because it is more related to a specific direction decided by the school providing it. The idea here is not of divulgating knowledge, but to go more in depth with specific knowledge, and it is becoming more and more mainstream in many schools, particularly business schools and law schools. Then there is the third one, that many universities are trying to experiment, which combines in presence teaching with digital one. This third possibility is about taking the best both from digital technologies and from in person activities. In fact, it consists in theoretical sessions, taking place before the class, and then in presence session, to deep dive in a more customized way into the contents. I personally think this is the most powerful way to combine digital and I believe it is the way in which universities should go in the long run.
Today, all knowledge can be found on the internet, libraries and books. As a university with the goal of preparing its students for professional life, does Bocconi believe traditional classes are still essential for one’s education, and what new modules or subjects do you think will be relevant for tomorrow’s job market?
This is a very important question. I believe that students should come to university for three reasons: to learn, to develop relationships, and to have experiences. As far as the content is concerned, digital is very important, and again my personal belief is that in the long run there will be more and more mixing between remote classes and in person ones. Regarding the other two things, the experiences provided by the university and the relations that are created inside the campus, are something that should really remain in presence. For relations of course there can be social media, but it is still important to meet, work together, study together, and exchange knowledge in classes, in the sport center, and in study rooms. Moreover, being at Bocconi means having the opportunity to have many events, meet smart people, do the exchange program, do an internship. All these kinds of things will never be cannibalized by any kind of digital university or digital model. I want to be provocative at this point: I think the situation is not that different from what happened to shops. E-commerce did not simply close shops. Instead, it gave them the possibility to evolve towards a different kind of experience. The core experience that students have to develop in the university years is made of different kinds of things, especially for students that are younger and are doing the Bachelor or Master of Science, and that are between 17 and 25 years old. Content is just one of the three things. What instead I think is that professional education in the long run will be cannibalized by online platforms, but here I am not talking about young students, I am talking about professionals that come to business schools or law schools, or doctors that attend medical schools for updates. This is the reason why we are trying to become good at doing this at SDA, we are improving our offer of on demand videos. Of course, we still run a lot of courses in presence, but we also believe it is very important to develop these activities because in the future people will have less time to commute while also working, and so on and so forth. However, this is a different story, for a more senior population, which cares less about the networking and all the experiences that students have yet to develop.
Today we had Renzo Rosso in class, a really important entrepreneur in the Italian and international scene. He mentioned more than once the importance of being hungry, being unconventional, and breaking the rules, in order to really do something great, especially in today’s fast-paced world. This lesson is really important for entrepreneurs, and it is something that we try to convey in our events. Do you think it’s possible to foster this kind of behavior in an environment as serious as the academic one? And then, do you think Bocconi has space to improve in terms of fostering entrepreneurship? And if yes, which way is Bocconi going to go to do that? Are there any concrete plans to boost entrepreneurial spirit in Bocconi?
Well, successful people in general like to make these kinds of statements. For example also Steve Jobs used to say “be hungry be foolish”. I love the idea of disrupting things, and innovation by definition is about going against the rules. There is an interesting portion of the literature on innovation that demonstrates that technological radical innovation for the first period of time always goes against the rules, because there are yet no codified laws to handle it. For example, first cars, first airplanes, first internet and so on, weird things happen, sometimes people even died to create new inventions. Whenever people talk about innovation, they say that in order to be successful you need to disrupt. Well, yes, but. You have to disrupt up until a point, right? Because if you disrupt too much people don’t understand. All these very smart people, like Renzo Rosso, like Steve Jobs, are people that in fact have disrupted, but having understood the context very well. I personally believe that we should make a statement that is almost the opposite, “First understand the context and then disrupt”. I think that real success comes from this. Disrupting is very simple, you kick the ball outside the field, you invent things... but these things sometimes don’t work at all. The real point is to understand the context and to disrupt within it. And here’s where universities’ role becomes clear. Universities like Bocconi and many others are very important because they give a good understanding of the context and then if one enjoys topics like entrepreneurship and innovation they need to understand how to disrupt inside the context. And that’s why this is connected to what I was saying before. It is very important to teach with an inductive method, in order also to push students towards critical thinking. Because disrupting in a critical way means also developing critical thinking in your mind and again, we’re trying to work on this in Bocconi very much. I see the two things working together and it is also true that some smart entrepreneurs, for example Mark Zuckerberg, decided to stop going to Harvard because he was making already enough money. Even Renzo Rosso by the way, he was in Ca Foscari then his company boomed and he decided to stop going to university. But it is also true that for example Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook have important university degrees. In general education can help you a lot in being creative.
What can you tell us about Bocconi alumni who became entrepreneurs? Do you have statistics, a success story, or advice?
This is a very good question. Consider we have more than 120 000 living alumni in more than 65 chapters around the world, ranging from Sydney to San Francisco. If I have to make examples, two very brilliant entrepreneurs that transformed their company into unicorns come to mind: one is Federico Marchetti, that is now teaching a class at Bocconi and that in 2001 created Yoox, the first unicorn in the fashion field; then the other is Corrado Passera that recently created a unicorn, Illimity Bank. This incredible bank is based on algorithms providing loans to companies that have a hard time and typically are not served well by traditional banks, because they are concerned that they are going to fail. He has created this algorithm that allows him to predict the success rate of the company. I am naming just two examples of our alumni, in addition to our founder, Ferdinando Bocconi. There are many. One thing I noticed is that up until 10 years ago there was only a small percentage of students that wanted to pursue the career of entrepreneurs. Now it’s getting bigger and bigger. And this is also due to the fact that many people studying finance want to go towards venture capitalists, and this is a fundamental trend, that put the two things together.
Bocconi already has a double degree with Milan Polytechnic, in cybersecurity: do you think that such partnerships are meant to further appear due to the ever-stronger link between business and technology? How important do you think it is for today’s entrepreneurs to understand the technology behind their ideas?
First of all, we are building an important department that we will launch in March, I will make the news official during the inauguration of the academic year. It will be a department in computer science, so basically what we are trying to do is insourcing all the world of algorithms inside Bocconi. We are already pretty good in understanding the social sciences of different technologies, especially thanks to collaborations between our research centers with medical universities or with more scientific schools. We decided to launch that program because we believe that the topic was really representing a gap in the market in terms of capabilities. We have a course, the one where I have typically always been teaching, which is a Master of Science called EMIT, Economics and Management of Innovation and Technology. Students that graduate from there become economists that are good in understanding technologies, and so they usually go work in information technology business or in the micro mechanical industry. To go back to your question, I believe that there is more and more need of complementarity, so yes in the future we will launch additional graduate programs with other partners.
As a teacher of technology and innovation management: in which field should we innovate? How do you/Bocconi help students to innovate?
Well, the other very important field is the field of life science. Life science is important because it is not only the biochemical part, but also the part that has to do with services, so it is really broad and it has to do a lot with the things that we can do in a university of economics, business and legal studies. And then life science is a sector that is really crucial for the future. And for sure the green sustainability and technology fields are very important to understand innovation and to develop innovation. More generally I personally believe that we have only seen 1% of the apps that we will see in the next 20 years so there is an incredible space to create new algorithms that put together and combine services in different ways so this is also good news for Bocconi. So, the world is going towards social sciences, because tech, thanks to the language of digital tech is becoming simpler to handle. And I’m not saying that tech is not difficult, it is extremely complicated, but algorithms represent an interface and the future of innovation will be more and more about business models that create new services by combining different technologies with the language of algorithms. So, I think that we as social scientists we must become good in programming language, AI and these things. I mean we have an opportunity which is immense.
Now let’s move to questions more related to E-Club. How do you think e-club and similar associations bring substantial value to Bocconi students?
When I say that students should look for three things when they come to university, content, relations and experience, I mean also this. I think that associations are crucial not only for learning, because for example sometimes clubs like yours organize events that in a sense empower the learning experience on specific topics; not only because by definition associations are relational, but because they create a lot of experience by designing events, by envisioning study tours, by in general doing things that are part of university life. In my experience, as a student first and then as professor, I believe that associations are a key part, the leading part if I may, of universities. Actually, one of my regrets of when I was a young student is that we did not have this campus. Now the campus that we have, which is also very engaging and very open in terms of space, gives the opportunity to organize a lot of things that in the past we could not organize. So yes, I believe that associations will be more and more central in the future
So, you believe associations will grow like in other countries?
Sure, like in the UK and the US! In continental Europe we have the tendency to see associations as clubs, mainly political clubs, which is good, but in my experience in Anglo-Saxon countries associations are more technical and more vibrant in many ways. Which is what I have seen in these last ten years at Bocconi. In my times, associations were not that dynamic and were pretty much political, they put together people with the same political views, which is good, I am not saying that it is a bad thing, but it is not the concept that probably you also have in mind. And so, I am glad to see this improvement in Bocconi. Even the number has grown a lot and, and many are also very vertical in the topics covered. Which is actually what makes them very effective.
Just relating to the increased number of associations here in Bocconi, E-Club is an old association: would you consider creating a label or some form of recognition for the most deep-rooted associations to help students understand which are the more traditional associations, and for recruiters to know which ones are more established? A lot of new societies are created every year - which is great for student experience and so everyone can develop their passion, but some are more legitimate than others, and such recognition could help stabilize the associative environment.
Well, this is an important question and not a question to which is simple to answer. Behind it there are administrative rules and policies that need to be implemented, so it gets very complicated to answer in a few seconds. There are the elements of accountability and of complexity to take into account, because associations have specific rights, which make it sometimes difficult to go beyond certain thresholds. Also, you have to consider that we tend to see associations by school and by segment, because there are plenty of them, also in SDA Bocconi, that most of the times mirror the topics of the ones at university level. To this we need to add the element of management. For sure, what I can ensure you is that we typically supervise everything and we try to innovate coherently with the complexity of the model. We have also an office of inclusion and diversity, which is also devoted to understand better the issues behind associations. So, we try to constantly follow and take care of all these things. It is not simple. Of course, we would want to say always yes, but saying yes to everything creates problems, mainly in terms of overall management.
One last question. Have you ever thought about leaving Bocconi and everything right now, and just starting your company, thanks to all the knowledge you have?
I will never leave my Bocconi, for sure not now. I mean, my problem is that I love my job. In my position I could have stopped teaching, which is actually what I did in my first two years of deanship, but then I asked the permission to start teaching again a little bit, because this is part of my life. So no, in the short run it won’t happen. Of course, I will step down at the end of my term but I will keep teaching and doing research, which by the way is the other thing that I love. You know, I have had the opportunity to see a lot of companies these years, so it has been like living somehow also the life of organizations, but I love what I do and it will be very hard to make such a change.