One year ago, Tamara Etmannski became the first Canadian Global Impact Competition winner. The award earned her a scholarship to take part in a 10-week program at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University — a non-accredited institution that aims to solve the world’s greatest challenges through technology. The university was founded by tech legends Peter Diamandis, of the X PRIZE Foundation, and Ray Kurzweil, of Google.
Etmannski, now a UBC Faculty of Applied Science lecturer, is helping develop a new Masters of Engineering Leadership program, tied to the Sauder School of Business. As the second Canadian Global Impact Competition heats up — the winner will be announced April 2 — Etmannski explains how her experience at Singularity University transformed her thinking, and what engineering and business can teach each other.
What are some of the important lessons you learned at Singularity University?
I learned the value of interdisciplinary collaboration and outside-of-the-box thinking. They instilled the importance of pushing the limits of what’s possible and thinking ahead of the curve. What that means, practically, is that you think of a problem that could be solved with a specific technology — but you don’t think about where the technology is at now. You think about where it could be in five or ten years from now, and start working on your idea now. By the time the technology catches up, you’re going to be ready to meet it and be able to launch your idea right away.
Another really important take away message from the program was to be aware of the unintended consequences of our actions. If you invent an artificial intelligence machine that can self-replicate and take over the world, you have to take responsibility and ownership of those consequences.
Why is there a need for business training in engineering, or engineering in business?
Engineers learn how to design and invent; often, there’s a huge capacity for them to spin out startups and small companies from their inventions. Even if they don’t want to be entrepreneurs, it’s really valuable for engineers to have the business skills moving forward in their career. Within a mainstream career track, engineers often end up managing company projects.
There’s a stereotype of the successful entrepreneur as a college dropout: Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs. How true is it?
There was a phrase in Silicon Valley: You need to be a Stanford dropout to get hired by Google — it means you’re smart enough to get in, but also smart enough to get out. But there are far more cases of successful entrepreneurs having gone through university than those very few exceptions of people dropping out and then making it big.
Universities and university graduates produce great spin-outs and startups. This is the place where people dedicate four or more years of their life to being creative and really diving deep into an area of expertise. Universities should support the integration of entrepreneurship into the curriculum, or have opportunities on campus to foster the development of spin-out companies.