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A Graduate of the 'School of Hard Knocks'

Florida Tech’s Scott Benjamin uses his experiences as an entrepreneur to shape his classroom instruction.

By University Alliance

Scott Benjamin InterviewScott Benjamin describes himself as a "recovering serial entrepreneur," with business interests ranging from restaurants to real estate to healthcare.

Lessons learned from the "school of hard knocks" shape his work as an Assistant Professor of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship in the Nathan Bisk College of Business at Florida Institute of Technology.

"Having over 20 years of industry experience has allowed me to make the academic content come alive with examples of its practical applications in a variety of industries," said Benjamin, PhD, who also serves as director of Florida Tech's Center for Entrepreneurship and New Business.

Benjamin said his own Master of Business Administration degree has helped propel his career, allowing him to nurture partnerships with other entrepreneurs and secure funding for new ventures.

We spoke with Benjamin about his book, "Riding the Bubble: The World of Housing is a Wild Ride," his keys to success in an MBA program and his research in the field of commercial space transportation.

Q. Tell us about your background and what led you to teaching at Florida Tech?

Having had seven startup ventures across a variety of industries, I gained a healthy education through the school of hard knocks. Later in life, I received my doctorate degree from the University of Maryland in Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship with the goal of having a broader impact on the student population.

As both an entrepreneur and an academic, I was looking for a university that would allow me to create and deliver curriculum that will have an impact on our future generation of business leaders. Florida Tech is extremely forward-thinking in its approach to creating an applicable curriculum with real-world, hands-on experience. The innovative culture, small class sizes and flexible environment were appealing to me and led me to pursue the opportunities at this unique institution.

Q. You have launched numerous startup companies, including in healthcare, real estate, hospitality and investing. What attracts you to a new venture?

When I look at new venture creation, the concept has to resonate with me. I am certainly driven by financial reward but I like having the opportunity to create something unique and something that will have an impact on people's lives. For instance, one of my recent ventures involved developing a 193-unit apartment complex in Baltimore City. This project involved taking a piece of underutilized land, scoping out the design specifications, envisioning the end product, engaging the various stakeholders in the development process and putting the entire process in motion. At the end of the day, seeing the completed, fully occupied project brings me a great deal of fulfillment.

Q. How has your own Master of Business Administration degree helped you in your professional career?

That is an interesting question. People attend MBA programs for a variety of reasons. Some of my colleagues took jobs with large Fortune 500 companies and now hold positions in upper management. Some of them are successful business consultants with Big 4 firms. I attended the MBA program to meet other like-minded entrepreneurial business people to launch ventures in growing industries. This proved successful as I remain connected with two business partners and our relationship originated during our MBA program. A secondary benefit of the degree has been the legitimacy that it has created with my relationships with our financial partners. I believe that having the MBA has facilitated the process of raising venture capital both through banks and private equity funding.

Q. Your book, "Riding the Bubble: The World of Housing is a Wild Ride," recounts your experiences – the highs and the lows – as a real estate investor in the years leading up to the Great Recession. What lessons did you learn during that period and how have they influenced your professional life?

I learned many lessons being an active investor during the real estate bubble. First, you can't win unless you play the game. For every entrepreneur out there, my hat goes off to you for anteing up and playing the game. Based on my experience, you need to pick the right industry.  I picked real estate in 2001 and it proved to be a very profitable decision. It afforded me the luxury of making mistakes along the way that didn't prove to be fatal due to the rising tide. The final lesson that I learned along the way is directly linked to a quote by investor Warren Buffett: "Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful." I think that I entered the industry at the right time but missed the signals on the correction.

Q. How does your experience in the private sector influence your classroom instruction?

Having over 20 years of industry experience has allowed me to make the academic content come alive with examples of its practical applications in a variety of industries. These experiences that I convey to my students in the classroom are the real value creation in higher education. However, keep in mind that experience without theory is blind and theory without experience is mere intellectual play. I can't remember where I heard that, but I am a firm believer that a high-quality education brings both concepts together simultaneously.

Q. As you note in your book, your path to fulfilling your goal did not follow a straight line. Is that a lesson that you share with students concerning their own journeys and the time it might take to achieve success?

Absolutely. An important part of entrepreneurship and building a successful career is the willingness to put the time and the effort into trying different things but really focusing on a few. I try to encourage my students to try things out early in their careers to see where their passion lies but to eventually lock in on a path and chase their dreams with gazelle-like intensity. My journey has been meandering but I wouldn't trade in these experiences for a different path.

Q. You teach a course on Business Plan Research that takes a "radically innovative" approach to business plan development. Can you tell us more about some of the inventive ways aspiring entrepreneurs can build a foundation for success?

I'm not sure that it is an inventive path, per se, but it does get the students outside of the classroom and encourages them to gather first-hand data from customers, vendors and strategic partners. I am a firm believer in learning by doing and I try to get my students "doing" things in the field. For instance, we play a game called the Red Paper Clip Exercise. During this game, students begin with a red paper clip and trade up for different objects during the semester. The winner is the student who finishes with the most valuable item. Students learn planning, strategy, negotiation and execution through this simple exercise. While the book knowledge is indeed important, a successful foundation includes business skill development.

Q. If you were developing a business plan to support success in Florida Tech's MBA program, what strategies would you recommend to students?

Strategy is an interesting concept. You need to have a goal or primary objective before developing a strategy to achieve it. A strategy for an MBA program would have to depend on your definition of success. As I previously stated, success in my MBA program was networking and meeting future business partners to launch a venture. If your definition of success is excelling in your particular industry, then I would recommend not just focusing on the grades in the class but really digging deep into the material in order to become a subject matter expert in that domain. This will require doing two to three times the work in your area of specialty; this level of work will make you far more marketable on the job front.

Q. You are principal investigator for a study commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that is exploring the growth in commercial space transportation. Can you tell us more about this research?

I am really excited about this project. Through the FAA's Center for Excellence, a team of students and I are investigating the potential future in industry development in suborbital spaceflight. We've had the opportunity to meet and speak with high-level executives from a variety of major companies in this field and have developed an industrial landscape for this futuristic industry. We have learned a great deal about the future of space tourism, medical research in space and the potential for point-to-point space transportation. This is cutting-edge research being conducted in concert with nine other top institutions in the country.

Q. With spaceflight companies such as Blue Origin and SpaceX launching from Florida's Space Coast, what role can Florida Tech play in the commercialization of space travel?

Florida Tech is geographically positioned to become a major research center for the commercialization of space travel. The combination of our existing networks in the aerospace community and the forthcoming connections that we will establish with our new neighbors, Blue Origin and SpaceX, should allow us to build a wonderfully productive partnership with industry in this area. The Nathan M. Bisk College of Business possesses a great body of talent capable of becoming a center for research and development for this nascent industry.

Q. Would you like to take a commercial spaceflight?

I'm sort of a chicken! In looking at the product life-cycle, I consider myself a late adopter. We will have to see.

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Category: Faculty Interviews