Academic Entrepreneurs Who Succeed In The Business World

Have you heard this tired cliche? “Those who can’t do, teach.”

It’s time to flip this phrase. “Those who teach have more to give.” 

Successful entrepreneurs are celebrated, and those who rebel against traditional educational paths are lauded. However, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University, and Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College.

Perhaps dropping out is the best way to succeed in business, and perhaps not. There are successful entrepreneurs who started out as teachers and, let’s call them, academic entrepreneurs – those who can do and can teach.

Entrepreneurs Who Started Out as Professors

Here are a few examples of academic entrepreneurs:

  • Lynda Weinman – From 1989 to 1996, Weinman taught digital media and motion graphics at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. In 1995, she published one of the first books about graphic web design. At the same time, she started an online training library for web design called In 2015, her company was acquired by LinkedIn for a whopping $1.5 billion.
  • Jack Ma — After graduating from college, Ma became a lecturer in English and International Trade at Hangzhou Dianzi University in China. Ma started building websites for Chinese companies and formed the I.T. company Alibaba Group in 1998. The global tech entrepreneur is now one of the richest men in the world with a net worth of over $40 billion.
  • Craig Venter — Following the completion of his Ph.D. in 1975, Venter was a full professor at SUNY Buffalo in New York. In the late ’90s, Venter led the first team that sequenced the human genome. In 2010, he created the first synthetic cell. Venter is now executive chairman of three companies: the J. Craig Venter Institute, Synthetic Genomics and the science health firm Human Longevity.
  • Jeff Sandefer — After attending Harvard Business School, Sandefer followed in his father’s oil-drilling footsteps and founded Sandefer Offshore in 1986. In four years, his company earned $500 million. Then in 1990, he began teaching at the University of Texas in Austin as a part-time professor in the Graduate School of Business. During his time at UT Austin, BusinessWeek named him one of the top entrepreneurship professors in the country. In 2002, he left UT to co-found the Action School of Business, a private graduate school where professors must have a background in entrepreneurship or management.

The Positive Impact of Academic Entrepreneurs

Academics are leading innovation in a variety of industries. For example, recent reports show that the number of patents, licenses, and spin-off technologies created by academia is steadily increasing. By embracing a hybrid career path, academic entrepreneurs have discovered the benefits of being an academic and an entrepreneur.

In an article posted to, Javier Garcia-Martinez, a chemistry professor and co-founder of Rive Technology writes…

“I never found academic and entrepreneurial activities incompatible; in fact, I believe they go hand-in-hand…Spinning off your research forces you to think more broadly and creatively and to solve technical issues that would not necessarily emerge within a smaller-scale lab environment … Such hands-on experience can open new doors to academics, helping them secure industry funding, for example, and also collaborators.”

Garcia-Martinez writes that teaching as a professor is not detrimental to his business prospects.

“Staying in academia … has been very beneficial to my career as an entrepreneur. It has allowed me to keep abreast of the most forward-looking results in my field, think more broadly and critically about how to transfer my technology, develop new science that could lead to new business opportunities, and identify and recruit new talent. Academic entrepreneurs can have a real impact on society.”

In Summary

The emerging cohort of academic entrepreneurs proves that it’s possible to get paid well for research and expertise. Whether the role as professor or entrepreneur comes first, the two can co-exist either way.