Episode 3: Professor Tom Field intersects entrepreneurship, higher ed, purpose

 

 

 

Tom Field, Ph.D., Director of the Engler Agribusiness and Entrepreneurship program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, discusses his mission to empower students and communities to courageously pursue their purpose through the form and art of entrepreneurship. Throughout his academic career this cowboy from western Colorado has spoken out about the needed transformation of higher education—a deep internal exploration that results in the unleashing of the entrepreneurial and creative spirit of the student. During their conversation, Dr. Connie and Dr. Field discuss the exploding side-gig economy, creating the next generation of action-oriented innovators and key takeaways for budding, starting and experienced entrepreneurs.

 

“The leader in the future will be responsible for attracting talent, and then for empowering that talent, getting out of the way of the talent, keeping the culture alive, keeping the team focused on the right ball that you’re chasing, but doing it all in a way that invites people to the table.“
Tom Field
Director, Nebraska Engler Entrepreneurship

About Tom

     

Tom Field, Ph.D., is a passionate advocate for education, agriculture, free enterprise, engaged citizenship and the potential of young people. He is also a noted agricultural author with works including his column “Out of the Box” and featured commentator of “The Entrepreneurial Minute” on the Angus Report on RFD-TV.

A frequent speaker at agricultural events in the U.S. and abroad, he has consulted with a number of agricultural enterprises and organizations, and has served on numerous boards related to education, agriculture and athletics. He is the co-owner of Field Land and Cattle Company, LLC, in Colorado. He and his wife Laura watch over a brood that includes a son in the Teach for America Program, twins who are seniors in college and toddler twins to round out the team.

 

Mentioned In The Show

Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

The Power of Moments by Dan and Chip Heath

The Dip, a little book that teaches you when to quit by Seth Godin

 

Show Notes

Hi, I’m Dr. Connie, host of the Rural Futures Podcast. Joining me today is Dr. Tom Field. He’s the executive director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program, but he’s also an amazing colleague and close friend, and somebody I rely a lot on for advice. I think as we go through the interview today, you’re gonna know why. Tom, I want to give people a little background about you, but then I also want you to introduce yourself. Some of the things I admire about Tom and his bio is that he really puts students first. But not just in a traditional way in terms of lecturing. In fact, you’re anti-lecturing. (laughs) You are experience. Go out there and build something, and do it together. I think building these cohorts and these teams of very entrepreneurial students is something that you’ve really done with your team here at the University of Nebraska­–Lincoln, but also now, you can see the effects of that in businesses and communities beyond campus, which is very exciting. Tom also does a lot of consulting with companies in terms of helping them grow their businesses, but I loved too, how you focus on mindset with that. So much of it is about mindset and passion, and what you really bring to the table in terms of your talents. Fill in some gaps for us. Tell us a little bit more about Tom Field.

Well, I’m a son of a ranching family in western Colorado. As a little kid, I actually in the summers, we would go up into the high country. It was called Cal Camp, and I lived with my parents in a one-room cabin with no running water, no electricity, a wood-burning stove. From that sort of humble beginning, and which was actually a great experience as a kid, had the opportunity through so many people investing in a small community in western Colorado to see the world, and to experience a little bigger picture, and a different perspective. Eventually went off to university. Got a degree in animal sciences, but if I would go back and finish my practicums, my second degree would be in human development and family studies, with an emphasis in early childhood. Which is in my second life, maybe that’s what I’ll go do.

Now, why is that? Why would you pursue those fields?

Well, it’s sort of an interesting story. I took the first class at human development because I heard that there would be 80 women, and me. (laughing) And so that’s really a shallow reason, but when you’re 19, you make a lot of shallow decisions. I walk into this class and I encountered this fireball of a faculty member named Jill Kreitzer, and I did not walk into that class expecting to be transformed, but she changed my life. And then the entire faculty in that department, Kevin Ulchenbruns, and Janet Fritz, and Rex Colt. There was just a whole group of people that really invested in me and in helping me figure out that the human condition is not this static place. That there’s this developmental sequencing that goes on. It’s all this connecting the dots, right? I mean, Steve Jobs was right. Eventually, the dots connect. Being a cowboy and hanging out in this sort of child development, human development space, being really active in 4-H, having a deep interest in history, being wildly curious, having faculty who let me explore what I was interested in, and it all eventually connected to set me up. I didn’t know it was happening at the time, but it set me up to help grow the Engler program, and to create a program that’s focused on transforming the lives of students by putting them in command of their own ships from the minute they come to campus, and hopefully setting them up for the rest of their lives to actually be the master of their own destiny.

I think it takes a unique leader to be able to do that, and it sounds like you’ve had a lot of experiences that have helped shape you as a leader. And I know you’re also a dedicated family man, and really balancing that career, but also really, I would say, advancing society in many ways in the next generation. What does that need to look like going into the future? Tell us a little bit about you as a leader and your leadership philosophy.

Well, I think first and foremost, for me as a leader is that I rarely see myself as a leader. I see my team as a leadership group. Those who know me know that my love of hierarchy would be close to zero, if not negative. (laughing) I just think flat structure makes more sense. I mean, hierarchical approaches in ranching didn’t work because you had to be adaptive. I really learned a lot in the very chaotic ecosystem where things were changing all the time, and you had to work with a team. You had to work effectively and well. I’m a big fan of the team, and I think from a leadership perspective, the leader in the future will by and large, be responsible for attracting talent, and then for empowering that talent, getting out of the way of the talent. Keeping the culture alive, keeping the team focused on the right ball that you’re chasing, but to do it in a way that invites people to the table. I just can’t imagine an effective organization that operates without people around the table, and making decisions together, and then moving those things forward and assigning accountability. I think that’s the key to what we’ve been able to do. We’ve built the Engler program in six years from really scratch, up, because we’ve had a great team and people who were willing to engage, and then to be accountable, and to take big pieces of it and run with it. I’m also a big believer, if you’re a little further in your career it’s really critical to listen to younger talent. It’s hard to do because the older you get, the more you try to protect things, right? You start thinking, well I’ve gotta protect this. I’ve been working with companies and telling them, look, you gotta get the youngest voices in your team in the room and at the table. Certainly, experience matters, but you really have to be listening. We actually took it to heart in our own program. We just went through a really intense strategic planning process, and the person who led our team through the strategic planning process was the youngest member of our staff, 23 years old. And I’m very proud of that.

Well, and I think that’s a great thing to bring forward is that you really are about lifting people up. You’re about empowering them, getting them to where they’re able to lead not just the team, but themselves and get those experiences they’re needing and craving. I’ve seen a lot of that in the Engler program, and you’ve really helped the Rural Futures Institute think about that co-creation model a lot, as well. We’re not living in a vacuum. We’re not just in our offices. We’re all out trying to create the future together. Part of what we want to do with this podcast is explore the future of leadership, but also, how our leaders and people who are leading these types of incredible, cutting-edge programs, see the future changing. What do you see in terms, and it’s kind of a two-part question, I think for you, changes in entrepreneurship? Obviously, that’s where your program is focused, but also changes in higher education. How do you see the future sort of shaping in those areas?

Well, entrepreneurship I think, is this sort of two-edged kind of game. When we first started in this program, we thought our goal was really to build companies. We probably took too much ownership in that, because in fact, as mentors, and advisors, and facilitators and coaches, we can’t really build the company. The companies have to be built by individuals and teams who are really committed to the company. Over time, we figured out that really the key was, is our mission as a program was to empower people to courageously pursue their purpose through the form in art of entrepreneurship. And we thought that was a great way for people to actually let who they are bubble out, and to actually have a forum through which to express that deep sense of purpose.

Absolutely.

I think that’s entrepreneurship in the future, and I also think the other thing that’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen very, very quickly. The new economy will be called the side gig economy. As robotics, and artificial intelligence, and too much process oftentimes, and the regulatory environment, all those things sort of press on people, what they’re gonna do is they’re just gonna get creative, and they’re gonna do side gigs. We’re gonna see people who are doing amazing things in teams for short periods of time creating value, being rewarded for that monetarily, or professionally, or personally, and then find another side gig. I think that’s the new economy. I’m not sure anybody’s really ready for that yet, because it’s going to be this kind of frontier-like deal. If the side gig economy is where we’re going, the institution least prepared for that is the university.

Well, and you’ve been pretty vocal about this. How do we, as a university, how do we as higher education evolve? Because the economy is evolving very quickly, and people aren’t quite ready, but we should have a place in this new economy and helping people in our rural communities, but also urban communities. Anyone who wants to be involved get there. Tell us your thoughts on that.

Well historically, America’s great unfair advantage in the global marketplace has been our university system. I mean, just take a look at how internationalized the American university is today. We’re attracting people from all over the world because they value what happens in the university. The challenge is, is that big organizations, old organizations with very clear histories, including fight songs, and certain colors they wear, and all those things, they get caught up in protecting what they’ve done. I think that’s where we’re at. We’re at this tipping point. Every institution in the world is going through this sort of transformational process. Whether it’s a family farm, or whether it’s a major corporation that’s traded in the international markets. There’s just transformation happening at every level. It’s just sweeping. The university’s challenge is, is how does it encumber itself from the processes and the structure it’s built actually become this nimble, agile, service-oriented, outward-focused organization? That’s gonna be difficult. The challenge will be, is how do we create that? We have to create it by unleashing the creative power of the faculty, but more importantly, the creative power of the student. A faculty-centric institution in the future just isn’t gonna work. And an administration-centric university, just start preparing to find a new use for those buildings ’cause that’s gonna fail. And so, I think the university has to go through this shift, and the shift is how do we help people prepare for a future that looks nothing like where we’ve been?

Tom, we’ve talked about the new economy and how things are happening so quickly. We don’t have 10 years to make these changes at the university, or even for individuals. What would you say to individuals who are sort of nervous about the future? We hear a lot of people having like, oh, these robots are gonna replace my job. What’s gonna happen to me? But what advice would you give to people around this changing economy?

Well I think two things. One, I heard an entrepreneur one time say, look, when there’s fear, there’s opportunity, and when there’s a lot of fear, there’s huge opportunity. I think we’re all a little fearful about the changes. Things are happening so fast. Whether it’s job replacement, whether it’s economic and political discord, it’s all those things, right? I think the reality is, is that if people really want to be the master and commander of the ship that they want to ride on, they have to take the helm. Taking the helm means actually lots of small starts. Try things. The name of the game is action. You cannot plan your way into the new economy. You act your way into the new economy. I would encourage people figure out problems that need solving. They don’t have to be big, sexy ones. They can be simple problems that just need a clear solution. Find markets that are underserved. Find resources that are not utilized correctly, and begin to just work in that space. The reality is, is the world is going to be different. Change is always present. For goodness sakes, I did my PhD work on a CYBER 205. A computer that today is in a museum, and that wasn’t that long ago. It’s action, and action is the key, and not being afraid of failure, and not being afraid to just start. It all begins with the start.

Well, and I think one we can’t totally anticipate. So, getting used to having that change, to creating your own jobs, your own gigs, whatever that might look like, I think is such an incredible challenge in so many ways, but such a great opportunity too, for people to use their talents and skills. But for the university, also to reinvent itself. I think thinking about ways it can serve people in the lifelong learning process is so important. Here at the University of Nebraska for example, we have 4-H, which we call the first class for a lot of people. But at the same time, we have the ability to help people in high school, in college, in graduate school, and through their lives. As that economy and the technologies continue to change, those communities are also ready, but that means we have to be listening. You’ve talked a lot about that, in terms of how do we add value to their lives? How do we continue to rethink ourselves in so many ways, and how we’re helping people learn, and grow, and really make a good living in a life wherever they want to be? That might be rural, it might be urban. That doesn’t matter as much as just really getting people the life they want, and really helping them thrive.

Yeah, I think a university that figures out how to create certainly a network of learning, but more importantly, a network of deep curiosity, and it connects that curiosity across ages and across all kinds of socioeconomic, what we might consider barriers.

Right.

To just slay those barriers by creating this network that allows curious people to go to work on things that they care about. To work on problems they care about, and markets they care about, customers they care about. Solutions will take care of themselves. It’s find the right problem to work on, and find the right customer to serve. I think we solve a lot of societal problems if we can unleash entrepreneurial spirit. We just have to find a way to let people work on the things they care about early enough to help them determine their own future. I’ve got this belief, and I think it’s dangerous to put there’s two kinds of people, but in the world of entrepreneurship, and those who come to entrepreneurship and stick and those who don’t, I think there are kind of two mindsets. One mindset is, is we’re waiting on the cavalry. That’s a problem because if we’re waiting on somebody come riding in to rescue us from whatever, right? From some hardship, we’re gonna be waiting a long time, and we oftentimes won’t like the fine print in the contract when somebody comes in and, hey, I’m gonna rescue you, but here’s what you owe me now. We become subservient to the system that has purported to rescue us. And then I think there are people who are, I’m not waiting. I’m getting in the boat, and I’m going. The Lewis and Clarks, right? They provision, they plan, but they get in the boat and they go up the Missouri with no knowledge of what’s coming at them. But they know the only way to find the future is just to get in that boat. I think that’s something we’ve gotta really work out in university, is what do we want to produce? Do we want to produce more folks waiting on the cavalry, or do we want to produce people who are willing to get in the boat? I think that’s a fundamental question for the institution.

Absolutely. For those people that are wanting to get in the boat, and they’re wanting to create their own future, what resources would you have to share with them?

Well, the first thing we do is with our freshman students is we give them permission to work on something interesting. From day one, we don’t give exams. Because I don’t even know what an exam in entrepreneurship would look like, right?

That’s a good question.

Come back with the biggest, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know what it would look like. We started that apparently at, I don’t even know how to do this. Let’s do something more interesting. Let’s do projects, and let’s get high immersion for students with minimal financial risk, ’cause we don’t want people to make $100,000 mistakes early because that’s devastating.

Right.

It’s hard to dig out from. But you can make a $50 mistake and learn an awful lot. We run a little program where we have students that are put together in teams, and they do a $50 startup. We give them $50, they start a company, they have 60 days to generate revenue, and we tell them, look, it’s gotta be legal and it needs to make your mother proud. If it meets those constraints, then you’re good, right? We’re not gonna constrain you any more than that. Let’s see what you do. What’s interesting is they will as a group, make all of the mistakes that most early-stage companies will make that are dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars. But we’re only out with seven teams. It’s 350 bucks, and boy, have we learned a lot. Well, that’s powerful. We do crazy things like we have a little bucket when students will come into class and there’ll be a bucket of pencils and a bucket of red paper clips and we’ll say okay, pick one and sit down. They pick one or the other, and they’re kind of looking at it. They’re like, what is this guy up to now? We say to them, okay, here’s the deal. You have two weeks to trade that item for as much value as you can create. Trade it for something, trade again. We want you to make as many trades as you can. What’s interesting is in two weeks’ time, just in the sort of negotiation, and trading, and bartering world, we had students who traded red paper clips that eventually ended up with these really high-end gas grill barbecue deals, and Vera Bradley handbags, and it was amazing, right? What’s the value of that? The value is, is they’re having to make a cold call. They hate it, and they all talk about, oh, those first three, like will you trade me? It was so hard, and it was painful, but I did it, right? And then the negotiation, and understanding value, and knowing when they got to a value that they were willing to stick with. This one kid, he said, I got this super cool baseball cap. I really didn’t want to trade for anything else. (laughs) This is the value I wanted. I really wanted that cap. Well, that’s pretty cool. That’s a very different experience than memorizing a bunch of stuff.

Absolutely, and getting what you want. Asking for it, and being okay to go for it. Right. Such an important part of entrepreneurship. But I do see you brought a book. Do you have any resources you want to share with our listeners?

Yeah, so I mean, if you go to our website, engler.unl.edu, click on the resources page, lots of the books that we think are valuable, but one that I just really love is “Essentialism.” The subtitle is The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Here’s the challenge we have. We’re in a yes culture, right? And it doesn’t matter if you’re an educator, if you’re a church, if you’re a business that sells a manufactured good, if you’re a business that does consulting. Human beings, we are in a yes culture, right? Let’s pile more on our plate, never take anything off. The do more with less, but don’t stop doing anything. Well, that’s not sustainable. Eventually, that just tears you up. Greg McKeown has this notion that we can actually narrow down and focus on those things that actually have impact. The big rocks. Focus on the things that matter the most. And certainly, in entrepreneurship, there are key things to spend your time and energy on at various stages of the process, and things that you shouldn’t be focused on at all at certain stages of the process, right? Oftentimes, entrepreneurs, they want to build something really quickly, right? But they haven’t asked their customer.

But I’m glad that’s what you’re teaching your students. Where do you really focus first? How do you start building?

And that’s what essentialism does for you, right? It gets you to focus in the right places. We love everything that Seth Godin writes. “The Dip” in particular. Knowing when to quit. This is very antithetical to Midwestern values. Yeah, right. Right. But there are things that we literally should quit. We need to stop doing them because they don’t add any value, or we’re never gonna be very good at them, right? I quit playing competitive basketball a long time ago because I was never going to be a very good basketball player, right? I like basketball, but it wasn’t gonna be my future, right? So, spending tons of time on that would’ve been silly. Dan and Chip Heath. They’ve got a number of great books. “Made to Stick.” But they have a new one called “Moments,” and it’s all about this sort of reality that what we provide for our customers, whether we’re educators, whether we’re business people, whether we’re in the nonprofit sector, quite frankly, if we’re parents, is the power of what we create for our customer is moments. Memorable experiences that shape the way the person sees the world. I would be willing to bet that most people when they’ve been given things that gave them moments, they remember them, but they probably cannot remember the stuff that they got in their Christmas stocking three years ago.

Well, and I think as leaders too, how we create moments even in our culture, how do we build that type of culture so our employees want to be engaged and stay, and they also want to do great work, and we’re empowering them to do that? Appreciate your time and all your insights today, Tom. We could talk forever. (laughs) I know that we do. We do. But could you give us your website again, and let us know where people can find you?

You bet, feel free to contact me directly at tfield2@unl.edu. And you can find our great stories of wonderful young entrepreneurs at engler.unl.edu. And we would love to engage with people listening to this. We are coachable, and we need your help, and we love to meet you at the intersection of good ideas.

Great, thank you so much, Tom.

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