Oscar Ybarra, professor of psychology and an entrepreneur whose startup company helps people maintain cognitive health and mental sharpness, will become the director of Innovate Blue, the University of Michigan’s campuswide entrepreneurial effort.
Ybarra succeeds Thomas Zurbuchen, professor and associate dean for entrepreneurial programs at the College of Engineering, who has served as senior counselor for entrepreneurial education since November 2013. Zurbuchen will step down July 1, when Ybarra takes over.
Ybarra will continue to build campuswide educational programs, such as the recently launched minor in entrepreneurship available to all U-M undergraduates, and help coordinate the university’s broad array of entrepreneurial co-curricular activities, such as the TechArb student business incubator, various business plan and idea competitions, and some 18 entrepreneurship-related student clubs across campus.
Ybarra also aims to grow and enhance opportunities to engage in entrepreneurship for all students, and find ways to integrate co-curricular and academic programs. He envisions new courses that are action-oriented, co-created with students and applicable to life in college and beyond.
“Students need tools for tackling the inherent uncertainty of life and the future, and I see an entrepreneurial mindset helping with this,” he said.
“The entrepreneurial mindset is not just about starting a for-profit venture, or even creating a new organization. To be entrepreneurial is to be willing to engage with messy, wicked, uncertain situations to find problems worth solving, and using a mental toolbox to shape ideas and create solutions.”
He sees this way of engaging in contrast to a view of intelligence that is dominated by a focus on test taking, grades and fear of failure.
Ybarra has developed courses on intelligence, self-control and the psychology of entrepreneurship, which emphasize the concept of “self agency,” the belief that success in life is often about being able to chart one’s own path.
“A theme in these classes is that there are plenty of academically smart people out there who still do many not-so-smart things or underperform, so we obviously need better models for talking about what success and effectiveness in life are,” he said.
An entrepreneur himself, Ybarra’s startup venture monitors cognitive function for individuals and organizations, giving users a better sense of all the elements that help them stay sharp, such as social engagement, physical exercise, nutrition and mental engagement.
“Unlike some of the tools that simply monitor some types of cognitive engagement, such as Lumosity, this system measures and provides clinical feedback on all the major elements that predict cognitive function,” said Ybarra, whose venture is based on his years of research and motivated by personal experience with cognitive aging in family members.
The culture of entrepreneurship has flourished at U-M in recent years, and has gained momentum through Innovate Blue. Over the past three years, enrollment in entrepreneurship and innovation courses is near 7,000, and entrepreneurial extracurricular activities have drawn a combined attendance of 19,000.
Those activities include programs like the TechArb student business accelerator, the Ross School’s Michigan Business Challenge contest and Dare to Dream startup grants, the CoE’s Startup Challenge, and the School of Public Health’s Innovation in Action competition.
More than 100 students have now declared the new minor in entrepreneurship, which launched in January and is based in LSA.
“Professor Ybarra’s creative, active approach to entrepreneurial thinking and problem solving represents the kind of engaged learning at the core of our educational mission,” said LSA Dean Andrew Martin.
“Through Innovate Blue and LSA initiatives like optiMize and the Barger Leadership Institute, we are empowering students to translate what they learn in the classroom to tangible results in the world at large.”
James Holloway, vice provost for global and engaged education, sees U-M’s entrepreneurship effort as a key element of the university’s engaged learning effort.
“Engaged learning at U-M is all about how our students learn to be creative, intercultural, responsible, collaborative and innovative,” he said. “Innovate Blue intersects all of these by bringing together entrepreneurial and social action programs from across campus that allow our students to develop personally, intellectually and professionally along these dimensions.
“Oscar’s focus on creative process and notions of self-agency fit perfectly into that narrative. I’m really looking forward to seeing him drive Innovate Blue forward.”