St. Olaf College | News

Meet the college’s entrepreneurship coach

Margaret Bransford joined the St. Olaf College community in 2018 as the Piper Center for Vocation and Career’s associate director of entrepreneurship and outreach. In her role, Bransford guides students through the process of entrepreneurship and supports collaboration among the many co-curricular entrepreneurial programs on campus.

In anticipation of Ole Cup 2019, the annual student entrepreneurial competition on campus, Bransford shares the path that led her to St. Olaf and the meaning to her of entrepreneurship.

Don’t miss the Ole Cup on Saturday, April 27, 2019 at 9 a.m. in Viking Theater. Kate Tecku Field ‘10, winner of ABC’s popular reality show Shark Tank, will present the keynote address. Attend in person or watch via the stream.

Your career has been a fascinating journey through multiple industries, roles, and cultures. Tell us about your current role at St. Olaf.
I have the privilege of working with St. Olaf students and faculty in the field of entrepreneurship — from ideation to market analysis to business plans and beyond, and through the successes and failures of trying out an idea. St. Olaf and the liberal arts setting are a natural incubator for entrepreneurship, and it is an exciting place to be.

What personal and career experiences have brought you to this point?
I began my career as an environmental scientist — someone who knows a little bit about many different science disciplines, and how they fit together in a larger system. This mirrors my foray into business. In completing my MBA, I learned a little bit about many business disciplines and, in strategy especially, how they fit together in a larger system. My mind naturally takes this systemic approach, and roles where I can leverage this approach are the ones where I have found the most stimulation and success in my career. I think that’s one reason entrepreneurship appeals to me; it’s about finding what is missing in an ecosystem, testing it, likely failing, and stepping back again to see why.

What skills do you utilize most frequently in your professional life, and how have you honed or developed those skills?
Active listening is by far my most frequently used and most versatile skill. It crosses roles and industries — a scientist can use it as often as a lawyer or a banker. Active listening is about really digesting what another person is saying (and not saying), and framing thoughtful questions or statements in response. You are thinking and analyzing dynamically, and this is a critical skill for a consultative role.

You have had a multifaceted career. What is the secret to the career “pivot” as these transitions are often called?
Career pivots can be difficult, and often they do not go exactly to plan. (And depending on the pivot, going back to school or getting certified in a specific technical skill can be essential.) The secret lies in building strong relationships — both professional and personal. With professional relationships, the goal is building a network for the long term, showing others your strengths, and refining your goals and personal brand based on what you learn. The personal relationships help you through the inevitable ups and downs of the process.

How do you build and maintain these relationships? What role do connections have in advancing your work?
My advice is to build relationships because you are genuinely interested in the other person and what they are doing, and not because you have a particular goal in mind. Let others know who you are, what you value, and what your strengths are. Make an effort to follow up periodically — this is the hardest part. Opportunities will arise organically from genuine relationship building, and opportunities are essential for an entrepreneur or anyone in a traditional career.

What work are you most proud of?
Seeing individuals or organizations that I advise succeed. I love the “aha” moment in a coaching session that leads to a deeper understanding of the problem or opportunity at hand and seeing the client move forward and thrive through their successes and failures.

How do you define entrepreneurship? What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Entrepreneurship is hard to define, and it is a question I ask of almost everyone I meet as we look to define it at St. Olaf. Entrepreneurship lies on a spectrum, from innovation and design thinking, to risk-taking and freedom, to the ability to provide for yourself and your family while following your passion. Entrepreneurship is not just about the stereotypical start-up — entrepreneurship is about having the thoughtfulness, creativity, and perseverance to see an idea through and, sometimes, to know when it is time to let it go.

Particularly as the workforce trends toward more flexibility, contracting, and the gig economy, the entrepreneurial mindset and way of thinking will be especially useful.

The Ole Cup, St. Olaf’s annual student entrepreneurial competition, is almost here! Why is this an exciting opportunity for young entrepreneurs?
The Ole Cup is an excellent way to give students the experience of being an entrepreneur, including working hard on an idea and seeing it fail. Most students will not win the Ole Cup, and many will realize along the way that their idea is not viable. These are critical lessons, and through it, the student learns about how they behave under the prospect of failure — something many of them are not used to. This process, including failure, can be difficult to teach in a class. Win or lose, the students have follow-up support from St. Olaf, and from the larger Minnesota entrepreneurial ecosystem.

What keeps you awake at night when thinking about your field?
There is so much media coverage about what is happening on the coasts of the U.S. Yet, many Midwestern start-ups are poised for success because they combine great ideas with a strong work ethic and a financially sustainable economy for employees. I would like to see more capital investment happening here in the Midwest.

What gives you hope?
The students I meet with each day — their energy and optimism.

What is the best career advice you have ever received?
Be authentic, kind, and always act with integrity.

What do you wish you could tell your 22-year old self?
You are in for a wild ride.

If you’d like to learn more about the entrepreneurship opportunities at St. Olaf College, check out our new entrepreneurship page!