Of Underdogs and Intellectual Humility

March 5, 2014

When a group of undergraduate students from the entrepreneurship program at the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the C. T. Bauer College of Business competed in a business plan competition this past weekend, they knew that the stakes were not even.  Bauer undergraduates were competing against graduate students, not to mention students from Harvard, Yale and MIT.

None of this mattered to our students who are ready to compete with anyone, anytime, anywhere.  And so they did.

Kudos to Bauer undergraduate students Cassandra Hoang, Bobby Jacobs, Casey McNeil, and Susan Tran, who won first place in the competition (MIT team placed second). They helped create a business plan for a technology developed by Prof. Allan Jacobson, Robert A. Welch Chair of Science and Director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at University of Houston.

The REEcycle plan, as it is known, is part of the program we adopted this year to have Bauer students put business plans around technologies provided by the University of Houston Division of Research. The REEcycle plan addresses rare earth elements (REE) used in computer memory, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, catalytic converters, fluorescent lighting and more. Demand for these elements is outstripping supply, which is especially problematic because China produces most of the world supply and is increasingly treating them as a strategic resource. It is believed that recycling could address about 20% of the demand for REEs and reduce our reliance on Chinese exports, but to date there has not been a commercially viable method for extracting REEs from electronic components. Prof. Jacobson has developed such a method, and the REEcycle team has put a well thought out business plan around it.

We met the day after they returned from the competition, and I asked Cassandra Hoang, Bobby Jacobs, Casey McNeil, and Susan Tran, what they learned from the experience.  The big takeaway for me was the power of humility in these participants.  Arguably they were the “underdogs.”  Yet, or rather because of this, they did everything they possibly could to more than compensate for whatever it is they were “perceived” to lack.  They rehearsed for weeks ahead of time. They rehearsed the day and night before the event. They sought out and took to heart the feedback they received from alumni, faculty and friends.  For sure, they received a ton of advice. No one could blame them for not trying.

And they won.  They won big.

Yes, Bauer students do not need to be compared to any other group, and they can more than stand on their own ground.  Yes, I don’t need to emphasize “Bauer #1, MIT #2.”  Yes, “Bauer #1” says it all.

For what Bauer students possess in ample measure is what Lazlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google, referred to as a skillset that Google looks for in its hires called “intellectual humility,” or the ability to continually learn and want to learn.  If being the underdog comes with a large dose of intellectual humility, then Bauer students will always want to be underdogs, and refreshingly so.