The Case for Higher Education SharkTanks


We are in desperate need of shark tanks in higher education. No, not the kind you find in aquariums; the kind that allow for investing in innovative and dynamic ideas that will push higher education forward.

Shark Tank, a television show which airs regularly on CNBC, features a panel of potential investors, called “sharks”. The sharks consider offers from aspiring entrepreneurs seeking investments in their business or product. The entrepreneurs must first outline how much of an investment they seek from the sharks and must then present their idea to the sharks in order to create buy-in. Afterwards, the sharks ask the aspiring entrepreneurs various questions about their business model and the product or service in question. The sharks often find weaknesses and faults in an entrepreneur’s concept, product, or business model. Successful pitches often result in the sharks making various counter-offers against other sharks – and against the entrepreneurs – in an attempt to strike a deal. The entrepreneurs can make a deal on the show if a shark is interested. However, if all of the sharks opt out, the entrepreneurs leave empty handed. The sharks invest into the businesses with their own hard earned money and it is up to the entrepreneur to ensure that he/she is well prepared to enter the “Shark tank”.


What if we could apply this model to higher education? Imagine if a grounds-person, Ph.D student, resident director, janitor, academic counselor or teaching assistant can present a new and innovate idea to the highest levels of university leadership and a mixture of private  investors. What would result of these interactions? What if we could effectively re-invent our spaces and turn them from think tanks to “Shark tanks”?

There is certainly value in adopting this kind of model in higher education. However, before we do so, we need to consider a few factors that have made this approach effective in the private sector:

1) Private entrepreneurs are willing to take risks on behalf of their idea before they ask others to. We should as too.

The entrepreneurs that appear on the show often share stories of what they have risked in order to push their idea forward. They do so because they believe in their idea and they take those risks with the understanding that there are no guarantees in the business world.  How many times have we, as higher education professionals, asked others to take a risk and buy into our ideas when we haven’t done so ourselves? How can we expect others to invest in our own ideas if we are unwilling to take the first step and invest in those ideas prior to asking others to do so?

2) Our ideas need to improve the human condition.

The most successful pitches on the show are presented by entrepreneurs that can unequivocally prove that their product / service improves the human condition in a way this unique from other ideas that are already on the market.  If this model were to be adopted within the sphere of higher education, then we as “entrepreneurs”, must be able to articulate the value added that our ideas bring to the table. It’s not enough for us to present ideas that sound good on paper and look good on PowerPoint slides; we have to prove that our ideas bring value to the mission of the institution in a way that is unique from other initiatives that already exist.

3) The private sector understands the importance of creating shared ownership over the success of a business / product.

The sharks on the show make offers and deals with their own money. In turn, the sharks have a vested interest in making sure the businesses they invest in succeed. The sharks often highlight that they not only invest the capital necessary to make the businesses grow; they also invest their personal brand, time, effort, political capital and expertise into the businesses as well. The sharks on the show have a firm understanding that throwing money at an idea will not make it successful; in order to develop the business you have to develop the people in charge of executing the shared vision on behalf of the business. This holds true in the private sector as much as it holds true in higher education.

If we, as institutions of higher education, are as innovate as we claim to be, then we need to open up spaces where innovation can flourish.  It’s time for institutions of higher education to evolve form just think-tanks to Shark tanks.

2 thoughts on “The Case for Higher Education SharkTanks

  1. great post! Ever since reading the Steve Jobs bio and following tech journalism, I’ve felt that higher education, and more specifically, Student Affairs, can learn a lot through understanding how true innovation works. I even did a pechakucha on my campus about that idea. I just started reading Zero to One by Peter Thiel. In the beginning he talks about how taking something that’s already being done and making it better is taking something from 1 to n. He then goes on to say that when we create something new/innovative, we are taking something from zero to 1. I’m excited to read more from the book. and i’m excited to read more of what you’re thinking through this blog.



  2. Eric, thank you for reading. I haven’t heard of the book but I will look into it, as it sounds interesting. I think you bring up some good points. Personally, I do think true innovation happens in higher education. I just think it doesn’t happen to the degree to which we believe it does and I think we get more enamored with the idea of innovation than we do with the process innovation requires. My intention for the blog is for it to add value to conversations that are already happening in the field. I hope you enjoy it!


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