The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News February 15, 2008

Career-Oriented Weekend Invents the Future

Can ideas cause social upheaval? Can one person change the world? Oberlin’s symposium, “Inventing the Future: Entrepreneurship at Oberlin,” answered these questions in the affirmative.

Last weekend, Oberlin College hosted the symposium, a part of the larger Creativity & Leadership Project. The program was designed to promote the spirit of entrepreneurship among Oberlin students by providing a forum where they could meet and network with alumni, engaging in dialogue about how successful enterprises are built.

Intellectual risk-taking is a tenet of the Oberlin education, and the symposium intended to hone this skill. Guests attending the two-day event included Oberlin alumni, regional businessmen and entrepreneurs and students from other colleges participating in the Northeast Ohio Collegiate Entrepreneurship Program: Lake Erie, Baldwin-Wallace and Wooster.

College President Marvin Krislov opened proceedings with numerous welcomes, commenting that he had “rarely witnessed so much enthusiasm” in the College for an event. Visitors could be seen strolling around the campus led by Oberlin students. Eager students, faculty and staff members crammed into the Science Center where the keynote addresses were held.

First to speak was Jerry Greenfield, OC ’73, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. In his lively keynote, punctuated with humor and loud laughs, Greenfield kept the audience engaged as he described his evolution from a “bushy-haired biology major” at Oberlin to the founder of the world’s first socially responsible ice cream business.

Becoming a businessman has not meant that Jerry has evaded the values Oberlin instilled in him of effecting meaningful social change: “I did not want our business to be another log in the economic machine,” he recollected.

Greenfield added that, just as in his own practices, “[E]nvironmental and social concerns should be integrated into the day-to-day running of business.” Greenfield’s address was a lesson on how to make money and care for the community.

The second keynote speaker, Michael Alexin, OC ’79, vice president of product design and development for Target Corporation, highlighted the importance of innovation. He urged students to “be innovative and develop the capacity to think and act quickly, thoughtfully and sensibly; think of the world as not something to be afraid of but something to engage in.”

Alexin further described how “liberal arts credentials, like those provided by Oberlin, [are] being increasingly appreciated in the business community.” Alexin focused on how liberal arts students, with their well-rounded education, are being heavily sought in businesses today.

Entrepreneurship — “going out in the ‘real world’ and getting it done” — is an idea perfectly consistent with Oberlin’s mission. The College seeks to produce individuals who are not just successful professionals, but also socially active citizens.

Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology John Petersen, who also participated in the panel on entrepreneurship and energy, affirmed: “Entrepreneurship has always been one of the defining features of Oberlin students.  Our students do not accept the status quo.  They are risk takers in the most positive sense and they create ideas, organizations, institutions and movements where none previously existed.”

Students responded enthusiastically to the symposium. College sophomore Ahmad Zia Afghan, an economics major who participated in the Oberlin Connect Entrepreneurship Scholars Program during Winter Term 2008, spoke of how his experiences during the winter and at the symposium have inspired him to “go forward into business while carrying the Oberlin spirit of social responsibility.” He added that Oberlin alumnae are not only successful businessmen but also “mentors and survivors — true social leaders.”

College first-year and international student Eiphyo Han also commented how the Entrepreneurship program “opened [her] eyes, allowing [her] to meet many people — people with a variety of interests from music to social service, but connected by the entrepreneurial spirit.”

On the value of the symposium, College first-year Jiayu Lin said: “By promoting the exchange of entrepreneurial ideas… facilitating meaningful networking opportunities, [the program] embodies Oberlin’s ideal of changing the world in the business context. It has helped define my career goals and interests.”

Jonathan Sweet, a student from Lake Erie College attending the symposium, also remarked on the “great opportunity the symposium provided [him] to interact with fellow students and entrepreneurs.”

The symposium is one of several initiatives recently undertaken by the Creativity & Leadership Project to promote and guide students’ entrepreneurial activities. Apart from the keynote addresses, there were panel discussions exploring the connection between entrepreneurship and the arts, music and finance.

Professor Petersen praised the organizers for putting up an “event that struck a balance between economic, social, cultural and environmental aspects of creativity and leadership.  They set the tone for what many of us hope will be a highly successful program.”


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