Five Questions For … Rice Entrepreneurship Professor Yael Hochberg

Houston—Most tech entrepreneurs are intently focused on their startups, their innovation and potential customers. Yael Hochberg focuses on how and why those founders succeed—and, more importantly, how and why they might fail.

As the head of Rice University’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, Hochberg is currently working with a $1.5 million grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to assess which parts of the myriad accelerator and incubator programs geared towards startups actually result in success. “We don’t know whether these short-term programs can be effective, and what parts of them are the most effective,” she told me in an interview last year.

Hochberg came to Houston from Chicago and Northwestern University three years ago to take a newly formed position at Rice. She teaches in the Jones School of Business and is the academic director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, a group formed to bring together the university’s business, engineering, and natural sciences schools to boost entrepreneurship.

This week’s “Five Questions For … ” is with Hochberg, who speaks about the importance of finding a mentor, the lingering effects of a childhood screening of “Jaws,” and her reluctance to interfere with the space-time continuum. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: What’s your most impressive or most quirky skill that has nothing to do with your day job?

Yael Hochberg: I’m a masterful Lego-model builder. I’ve got a couple of racecar models that I’ve built, and just about every single Star Wars creation you can think of. I had dated someone who decided this was a great way to keep me occupied while they were day trading. They handed me a Lego model and they were right. I was, in fact, completely distracted. I complained a lot less that they spent a lot of time day trading.

X: If you could go back in time and get five minutes with any major historical figure, who would it be, and what would you want to say to them?

YH: I don’t. I’d be scared about changing the timeline. … I wouldn’t mind going back and observing things. I’m not sure I’d want to talk to anybody. I do have a deep-seated belief that while there are certainly things to be learned from the past, and you should learn from the past, it is important not to dwell on the past and the mistakes that have been made. You say, mistakes have been made, and look forward to the future, and what can I do to make sure the future is the best it can possibly be.

As someone interested in space, it’s fascinating to sit in on those first discussions about going to the moon. It would be fascinating, I’m sure, to sit in on the groupthink that led to the Bay of Pigs. I’m fascinated by some of the things that happened in central Africa, 20, 30, 40 years ago. There are so many interesting things that have happened that we know only so much about.

I certainly feel that we’re not living in the best possible world that could have ever existed, and … Next Page »

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