FACULTY FOCUS: Shawna Chen an ‘entrepreneur at heart’

Note: Faculty Focus is a monthly series that highlights faculty whose compelling passions, innovative ideas and various areas of expertise help weave together the fabric of Brock University’s vibrant community. The full series is available on The Brock News.

Midway through her bachelor’s degree, Shawna Chen realized her love of science wasn’t enough.

While her interest drove her to pursue a degree in Nursing after high school, by the end of the program’s first year, she knew it wasn’t a good fit.

Chen, now an Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship with Brock University’s Goodman School of Business, couldn’t see herself working as a nurse, even though she enjoyed subjects such as anatomy and public health. She considered switching majors but couldn’t find a program she was passionate about. In the meantime, she continued her courses, interned in hospitals and finished the degree.

Chen was a university graduate without a passion or path to follow.

After some consideration, she chose to continue her studies and pursued a Master of Business Administration at a U.S. university.

Two years later, with a fresh graduate degree in hand and enough interest in business, she found work with a startup company. She quickly discovered she enjoyed the strategic planning and business development aspects of a new venture and decided to pursue her own entrepreneurial journey.

Her team — which she worked with as the venture’s co-founder — had big ideas but little funding. It was nearing the end of the dot-com bubble and financial investors weren’t as prevalent as they once were.

“You had to be scrappy and make do with very little at hand,” she said. “We had to home in on what we were really good at.”

They created internet-related ventures, such as a shopping site, to generate quick cash while they worked on their long-term business idea.

“It was about chasing a dream,” she said. “Having a big idea that was light-years ahead, meaning, customers mostly didn’t understand what the product or service was, so we needed to educate them. It could take years before customers caught up with our concept.”

Despite the team’s enthusiasm and dedication, their big idea never came to fruition. Chen found herself exhausted after a decade of hustling for internet startups.

“It was intense and demanding, with little room left to have a life,” she said. “I worked 16 hours a day, but it felt like 24-7 because the internet doesn’t sleep. It wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle for me.”

Although Chen continued to enjoy the strategic side of startups and business development, she no longer wanted to work in the corporate world. It’s what led her back to school to pursue a PhD in Entrepreneurship.

“I was 35 years old, single and burnt out,” she said. “It was time to help others and teach them where I went wrong. I don’t regret any of my decisions because I think you learn more from mistakes than successes. I learned a lot.”

Since becoming a professor, Chen has found great reward in teaching and researching entrepreneurship and has shifted her perspective on what entrepreneurship means.

“It used to be about starting your own business, leading a new project or steering a company in a new direction. Nowadays, we treat entrepreneurship as a soft skill — a mindset,” she said.

“We all experience challenges differently, so having an entrepreneurial mindset allows you to take a step back, analyze the problems, experiment with several solutions and pick the one that can resonate best with a group of people. It’s not just about pitching your idea and convincing others of your own vision. It’s about matching mindset with behaviour.”

Within the past five years, Chen has found a research focus on women entrepreneurs and others who don’t fit the fast-paced and “unsustainable” lifestyle she chose to leave.

For many women and individuals in under-represented groups, Chen said internal drive and motivation is not enough for entrepreneurial success.

“We need to offer a different approach to entrepreneurial education that fosters the technical, cognitive and emotional skills necessary to survive and thrive in new circumstances,” she said.

Since joining Brock seven years ago, Chen has been collaborating with the Brock LINC — home to the University’s centre for creativity, innovation, research and entrepreneurship — to spearhead programming targeted at women entrepreneurs. Recently, she was appointed an LCBO Spirit of Inclusion Initiative Research Scholar and is examining diversity within the alcoholic beverage industry to identify barriers for under-represented groups.

Chen hopes her research, teaching and community collaborations will help women and others find their inner entrepreneur and acquire the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in a more streamlined approach than she experienced.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be an entrepreneur,” she said. “It took me a while to realize I was an entrepreneur at heart. Many of us are. I came back to academia because I wanted to help people find that in themselves.”

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