UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Ted Zoller Talks Entrepreneurship

Some people are big dreamers and risk takers. Full of drive and determination, these innovators are ready to seize new opportunities, start new enterprises and improve existing business models.

According to Ted Zoller, who oversees the teaching and outreach programs of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School, these are the business leaders of the future. Dr. Zoller has encountered many of these individuals during his time with MBA@UNC.

"I think the thing that's most exciting about the MBA@UNC program is we get people to think through whether or not they could actually become their own employer," said Zoller. "As opposed to preparing themselves on a skills basis for a new job — they ask themselves, 'Could I take the opportunity to actually conceive a business that will realize my full potential as a leader?'"

The Online Advantage

MBA@UNC is not your typical online program. Its innovative design allows professionals across the globe to gain perspective on their entrepreneurial aspirations and, more importantly, to fine tune their ideas based on real-world modeling.

Dr. Zoller has come to be one of the program's biggest advocates — but this wasn't always the case. The truth is, he was initially somewhat skeptical that distance learning could be as effective as the classroom. Mainly, he was concerned about losing his ability to size up a student's capabilities without a physical classroom. However, in the online format, Zoller found that he interacts with highly capable people with immense potential who have the building blocks for becoming an entrepreneur — without the restrictions that geography typically presents.

"At MBA@UNC, we're preparing people who can serve as leaders — both as core C-level people or as entrepreneurs," Zoller said.

Often, the main obstacle holding individuals back from pursuing their business ventures is that their work life won’t allow it. Whether they are balancing family obligations, a demanding job or other responsibilities, these people may feel that fitting education into their busy schedules is unrealistic. The MBA@UNC online classroom eliminates these roadblocks to help make any potential entrepreneur's dream possible.

The Dual Lenses of Entrepreneurship

Dr. Zoller's course, “New Ventures Discovery,” gives students the opportunity to view entrepreneurship through multiple perspectives. First, participants look at a venture from the standpoint of a founder, following every step from opportunity recognition to financial modeling to financing. Next, students are given the chance to view a venture through the eyes of an investor.

Zoller provides multiple case studies of individuals who have successfully made the transition into entrepreneurship so that students can critically analyze them as investors. This gives graduates a significant advantage — they are now prepared to tweak their business model according to how a funder might evaluate it.

Examining real-world business ventures offers students a more realistic perspective on their entrepreneurial aspirations, which Zoller says is crucial for success. In fact, he asserted that people who are most likely to make a transition into entrepreneurship are those who are are prepared to take a risk in pursuing their career goals.

"What I'm finding is that the type of student we're attracting at MBA@UNC is ready to make the transition to entrepreneurship," he explained. "They've already prepared themselves, and I'm just giving them the keys to unlock the code."

Growing a Business from the Ground Up

Zoller has observed a wide variety of students with a range of ideas, skills and ventures. One strength they all seem to share is an orientation for what he calls organic growth — the ability to build something big from minimal capital. One MBA@UNC student has revolutionized the private jet industry by running the aviation department for high-grossing companies. Zoller has also observed a group of students re-launching a brand that includes both a brick-and-mortar as well as an online store.

A major benefit of MBA@UNC is that the program grants students the opportunity to gain a retrospective view of their business models already underway. Zoller cited Lauri DeCicco as one example of an entrepreneur who experienced tremendous growth over the course of the program. While DeCicco had already launched a business aimed at providing parents with resources for toddlers, her efforts had failed to garner results. While working with Dr. Zoller, DeCicco gained a completely new perspective of her business model, and it became clear to her why the Web site hadn't worked. One of the core components of launching a successful venture is testing the market, and she had skipped this step. Zoller helped DeCicco understand the risks of launching a venture without engaging the customer first. Under his guidance, DeCicco went back to the drawing board to determine whether her assumptions rang true with her customers. After analyzing their feedback, she could then apply her insights to restructure and redesign her venture accordingly.

Deciding to take the leap to enroll in a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program is certainly a significant step. However, Zoller said there's never been a better time to take a chance — in fact, he believes this is the most exciting time in business history.

"We are entering a period of tremendous change, of tremendous transformation and tremendous need," he stated. "We need serious leaders to solve serious problems. I honestly think that the entrepreneurial leaders of UNC Kenan-Flagler will end up becoming leaders of the future."

    Ted Zoller oversees the teaching and outreach programs of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at UNC Kenan-Flagler. His research focuses on the role and structure of entrepreneurial networks and the interrelationships with investor syndicates. He has posited a "dealmakers' algorithm" to identify the most important actors in entrepreneurial ecosystems. He is an adviser to the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, and works with them to scale the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, an entrepreneurship networking project based on his research. He received his PhD from UNC, master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and Syracuse University, and a dual bachelor’s degree from the College of William & Mary.