Professor Riccardo Maiolini: Fostering Student Entrepreneurship 

JCU Professor Maiolini discusses what it means to be entrepreneurial for students as well as the several entrepreneurial opportunities provided by JCU’s Institute for Entrepreneurship. 


By Sara Segat / Matthew staff || Edited by Amber Alexander  

Courtesy of John Cabot University 

Professor Riccardo Maiolini is an Associate Professor of Management and the Director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship (IFE) at John Cabot University. Besides being an academic, he is an entrepreneurship and social innovation expert, as well as the Investment Manager at Luiss Alumni 4 Growth. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him to explore his background and discuss what it means to be entrepreneurial, particularly for students and young professionals, and what JCU’s Institute for Entrepreneurship can do to foster our entrepreneurial sense. 

You have a remarkable curriculum, with an MA in Political Science and a Ph.D. in Management from LUISS Guido Carli. Why this combination?  

This combination comes from my overall intention of working on policies. In the beginning, my idea was actually to become a journalist. Then I decided I would have preferred to work as a labor unions specialist as I was fascinated by politics and industrial relations. With some of the last courses I took at university, I also became fascinated by the new trends in academic research and policies regarding environmental management, and especially how technology and innovation were impacting society through the involvement of stakeholders as a new trend. I then worked for two years at LUISS on a big, innovative project involving alumni and fundraising. I followed the implementation of the first alumni CRM, all the fundraising activities, and the first alumni reunion.  

All of this was to develop and implement the American idea of fundraising from an alumni perspective. During one of the events in 2007, through one of the alumni on the Board of Directors of the Association, I came across the concept of startup for the first time. This led us to organize one of the first startup meetings together with BIC Lazio, known today as LazioInnova, an entity for public funds that go towards new, innovative ventures–what we would call startups today. I was fortunate enough to start hearing about startups, and I organized one of the first events in Rome (aptly called Startup Meetings) where innovative entrepreneurs or scientists and innovators showcased their prototypes (on paper, in 3D, or in other forms) of their innovative ideas. I got even more fascinated by technology and innovation, and so, after two years, I seized the opportunity to participate in LUISS’ first Management Ph.D. held in English with one year abroad. I got in, and that’s how everything started. 

You also have over 10 years of experience in the field of entrepreneurship and consultancy. Why did entrepreneurship attract you in the first place? 

I mainly like two aspects of entrepreneurship. From a broader point of view, it is because of the impact and effect that new technologies, new ideas, and new businesses have on markets, industry, society – and businesses themselves, that evolve through new ideas. Then I’m really fascinated by the role that entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship can have in dealing with social problems. Indeed, the social innovation aspect of entrepreneurship is what I like to study and explore. 

What does entrepreneurship, or being entrepreneurial, mean to you? 

To me, it’s not necessarily interesting to be an entrepreneur, but it’s more interesting to think or act as an entrepreneur, following what we call the entrepreneurial mindset. Entrepreneurs are the kind of people that can deal with uncertainty. There’s this metaphor I like and show in class that uses LEGO pictures to explain how managers are essentially people who need to follow instructions to build something, whereas entrepreneurs are the ones who take the bricks from the box and try to build something new by themselves. I think that today, considering how fast trends change and how fast companies need to deal with any kind of problem, it’s more important for students to have an entrepreneurial mindset. 

We typically associate entrepreneurship with success, especially when we think about startups and businesses that changed the world. But, often, being entrepreneurial also means learning how to deal with failure. How do you do it? 

How do I learn from my failures, or how do I teach how to learn from failure? [laughs] No, I’m joking, but we need to understand what we mean by failure. And failure needs to be also measured in terms of timing because if you wait until the end before testing something, and then it doesn’t work, you’re not just failing the project itself, but you will also have wasted a lot of time. A good way to somewhat prevent failure is going with small steps and a short testing time. And in case of failure, you absolutely need to learn from it. In sociology, there is a nice theory called sense-making and sense-giving that explains how, when people interact with one another, they need to make a sense and give a sense of what they’re saying. It’s a kind of dual relationship, also in entrepreneurship, meaning that if you do everything on your own, don’t want to receive feedback, or don’t understand where feedback is coming from, then that is the real failure. It’s about not being able to learn from suggestions, feedback, and mistakes. 

You’re currently the Investment Manager at Luiss Alumni 4 Growth. Can you tell us a little bit about it? 

Luiss Alumni 4 Growth is the world’s first investment club that tries to put together investments with philanthropy. We have alumni who invest in startups managed or funded by other alumni, so it’s an alumni-based investment program such as those in prominent universities. What is particular in our case is that the university institution also invests together with the alumni. Alumni are subject to a specific legal condition in the investment agreements: they declare that when they will have an exit–and, in that case, we all hope for an exit with a high return on investment–they will give 50% of their return on investment to the university for scholarships. So, we invest in startups knowing that 50% of the return on investment consists not just of profit but of scholarship funds. This is very innovative, not just in the Italian academic system but also worldwide. 

In 2015, you became a JCU Professor. What made you get into teaching? 

I was already teaching at other universities–LUISS, UNINETTUNO–as a teaching assistant. I knew I liked teaching, and it really was a matter of serendipity when I came across JCU. I met Professor Merva and Professor Pulino while working for an association on BarCamps and other innovative projects. I decided to send my resume to JCU and eventually got in. 

At JCU, you currently teach Strategic Decisions in Entrepreneurship, Strategic Consulting, and Innovation and Information Technology. You’re also the Director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship. What is your favorite part of teaching these classes? Are there any students’ successes you contributed to as their professor or through IFE? 

Between the classes and IFE, there is a fil rouge that connects innovation as a breakthrough element and, again, the idea of decision-making and uncertainty. Those two elements are discussed in different ways in all three courses. When it comes to IFE, it’s about fostering entrepreneurship and an entrepreneurial mindset within a BA. What I mean by that is that it’s probably too early for BA students to focus on launching their business ideas. There are many successes, but at the moment, IFE doesn’t have an extensive track record of students who directly launch their startups after JCU. Statistically speaking, it is not because there are only a few people studying entrepreneurship but because, as IFE, we can plant the idea of being an entrepreneur, but then students need to match their skill sets and professional experience for their potential entrepreneurial activity to make sense. They need to work at companies, they need to know their industries very well, and then they will be ready to launch their company. Yes, there are a few good examples, like Paolo Biondo, a JCU alumnus who co-founded Ticketoo, a tech startup and secondary ticket marketplace. 

 However, we need to remember that Paolo, in parallel, is working on his background as an IT specialist and coder. So, again, he’s someone with industry expertise who’s trying to be an entrepreneur, and this goes exactly into my philosophy: at the beginning of your academic career, as a student, you need to work on your mindset, which will give you a chance to work with innovative companies and startups and build experience and expertise. Then, of course, if you have ideas, IFE is there to support you, but the idea behind the Institute is first and foremost teaching what it means to work in an innovative context, inside startups, or in an entrepreneurial ecosystem, and then helping students to test how to launch a company. Data show that, on average, people launch their businesses when they are around 40 years old. There are exceptions, of course, but I think you need to be an expert in a field or an industry, understand what is not working inside this field or this industry, and then be ready to launch your company. 

More practically, what can the Institute for Entrepreneurship help the JCU community with? 

As I said, IFE is a good gym for those students who might become entrepreneurs in the future. If you look at the new structure of IFE’s website, there are three pillars: learn, participate, and compete. “Learn” is all the academic activities–mainly courses for the Entrepreneurship minor and the Entrepreneurship certificates. Then, “participate” consists of internal and hands-on initiatives and programs that the Institute tries to combine with other classes and majors, such as the Learn Do Share program and the Mentorship program. Finally, there is “compete,” which is all our competitions, such as the Elevator Pitch and Triggering Change competitions. Before COVID, we also had the Weekend of Startups. Now, we decided to have a more open-network approach, so we partnered with Dock3, Bengis, Enactus, and NASA (for their Space Apps Challenge). This year IFE also promoted an exciting initiative from JCU’s Business Society, the Shark Tank competition. For this, IFE decided to collaborate with JERO, the Junior Enterprise of JCU students, to give the Shark Tank winner a prize that consists of consulting activities provided by JERO and aimed at developing and supporting the winning idea through, for instance, market research, business planning, and market positioning. The goal is to ultimately develop the winning idea into something concrete, and we’ll see how far we can go. 

What would you say are the main challenges for students who are launching a new business or entering the professional world? 

You should try your best to be different and show how you can bring value to yourself, to your team of peers, or inside the organization where you work. I follow this mantra: employees are not a cost; employees are always people who can generate value. So always bring something new into the conversation and really add value that otherwise might not be there. And then, learn. Never stop learning. I’ve always liked this quote: “if you’re the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.” You always need to be with people who are smarter than you and whom you can learn from; otherwise, you are wasting your time. Of course, this is not always possible at the beginning of your career but try to see who the smartest person around you is and absorb as much as possible from them. 

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs or, more generally, future professionals with an entrepreneurial sense? 

Read at least ten newsletters and websites every day. I have five newsletters at the moment–I changed them–and every morning, during breakfast, when my daughter allows me [laughs], I read all the news and updates that are coming out. This is because ideas come to you also if you flourish them. It’s exactly as I said in the beginning: a BA student with little to no experience probably has less chance to be an entrepreneur because they need to look outside their environment. You need to think outside of the box, and in this case, reading, collecting information and data, and hearing about startups launched on the other side of the world are all part of the right way to think and act. This is also what I try to do in the Strategic Decisions in Entrepreneurship class: showing students some of the newest companies and most updated company data. In my investor management activity, I receive and study, on average, 200-250 business projects per year. This is where new ideas come from, so you must stay updated. 

You can connect with Prof. Maiolini on LinkedIn and keep up with JCU’s Institute for Entrepreneurship on Facebook. Find out more about Prof. Maiolini in previous publications on JCU News and JCU’s blog