This fall, Macalester hired Kate Ryan Reiling ’00 to serve as the school’s first Entrepreneur-in-Residence. The Mac Weekly sat down with Reiling to talk about entrepreneurship at Macalester.
How would you describe your role on campus?
This role has really emerged from students wanting to engage in entrepreneurship. You are the people who are really driving what we do here. When I think about my role, I wear a few different hats. One of the most important ones is just to understand what students are thinking about and where they are going, and how we, as faculty and staff, can support their journey through Macalester and beyond.
I am teaching two courses this year as well. I’m teaching Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship this fall in the sociology and international studies departments and then I’m teaching Introduction to Entrepreneurship in the spring which is in the economics department.
There’s a lot of ideas of entrepreneurship—thinking creatively and innovatively about ways to solve problems and be in the world—here at Mac already. So, I think some of what I’m trying to do now, as we’ve started to call that entrepreneurship, is to think about how we might map that experience for students. This is another hat I wear. If you came to campus and said, ‘I’m curious about this’ or ‘I know for sure I want to do something around entrepreneurship as a student at Mac’, what do you do? What does that look like? Part of my role here is to help coordinate and facilitate and organize that in a way that makes sense. And then also help to map it and ask ‘What are the other opportunities that students are asking for that we can provide as the institution continues to think about this?’
The third hat I wear is around community and alumni engagement. The community of the Twin Cities is incredibly interested in what we’re doing around entrepreneurship here. There was a big startup week last week, so I was at a lot of community events and people were so excited about the ideas that are coming out of here and the student enthusiasm. They’re really excited to have Macalester have a voice at the table, and that’s been really exciting to see. Part of my job, then, is trying to think about how we link with the community in the Twin Cities and how we link with our alumni community and bring them back into the college. Those are my three hats. It’s a thrilling job.
How does entrepreneurship fit into a Macalester education?
I just talked to the theater chair [Harry Waters Jr.], and he said that entrepreneurship is roughly about living your imagined dreams—going out and creating the world that you want to see. The liberal arts, I think, really train people to critically analyze the world and look at how to deconstruct problems. I think entrepreneurship is the way to start to solve those problems.
I remembering graduating from Macalester and feeling like I saw the world in such a complicated way and I didn’t know what to do with that. I think entrepreneurship provides tools and mechanisms and frameworks to say, “I don’t know what to do. But I know what I might try in order to solve some of these problems.”
And it’s not the only way to solve problems, right? I think that would be way too much pressure on entrepreneurship, and it wouldn’t necessarily allow for the different ways that people see problems. And often, the problem could be: ‘I want to make it as an artist in the world, how am I going to do that? What kind of entrepreneurial journey do I need to be on to make my way through the world?’ So, I think for many different people, entrepreneurship can play many different roles.
In some ways, I think entrepreneurship can help spur people into action. If we were to say we’re going to teach entrepreneurship and it’s all going to happen in the classroom, I think in some ways it’d be like saying we’re going to teach you how to swim in a classroom.
Entrepreneurship is biased towards action. I think that’s one of the ways that it really fits well within the liberal arts context, but especially at Macalester.
The one thing I will say, and I think I mentioned this earlier, is that entrepreneurship is not new at Mac. It’s really not. I graduated in 2000, pre-cell phone era, and there were entrepreneurs here. It’s not something that has just arrived unannounced. I think it’s just time. I think that entrepreneurship is part of what happens in the course of being educated here. And it’s really inspiring to watch people shoot out of here and want to change the world.
How did you get to be sitting where you are today?
When I graduated from Mac, I spent a decade working in the nonprofit world in the Twin Cities. I really focused on helping scale small entrepreneurial nonprofits—early ideas that were just getting their footing in the community and in the market. That’s where I spent the vast majority of my time and I loved watching that growth. What happened was I looked at the leaders in the community that I wanted to be a part of and I realized I needed a better state of skills to become a stronger leader.
So I went and got my MBA out east at Dartmouth. I hadn’t taken an Econ class at Macalester so it was a really great experience for me to continue to broaden the way I understood the world and the ways I could think about problem solving. It gave me this whole other set of tools to think about the world. When I walked into business school I loved the entrepreneurs. They were creative and innovative and they had come from an incredibly diverse set of backgrounds. I went to school with people who were working in foundations and nonprofits and social enterprises and for-profits, and had come from different parts of the world. This fascinating little incubator started to exist in graduate school, and I realized I really wanted to be a part of what was happening around entrepreneurship.
In many ways, I realized, ‘Oh yeah, that was that feeling that I had at Macalester when I felt like I wanted to go out and make a difference and I had ideas—this is the thing that that’s called.’ It felt like finding home for me. It connected me more back to my experience at Macalester and all of the ways in which I was able to solve problems and think creatively. It connected me back here in a really strong way.
I actually had a board game idea that I had been tinkering with for a while. My mom is an artist and my dad is a hospital administrator. One of the things I’d always loved was this connection between the artist side of me and the organized side of me, and I’m also a soccer player, so I love competition, and I love this idea of getting people to play together. I think there’s something really cool about playing.
I remember someone telling me when I studied abroad that the most powerful moment she had when she studied abroad was that she got to laugh with someone. It’s this whole other way of understanding culture—if you can speak the language well enough to actually laugh, and not just at yourself, but with people. That was a really powerful feeling to me.
So I had this concept for a game that I had been tinkering with for years. The game was called morphology, and it’s a three-dimensional pictionary. So as opposed to drawing, you’d actually build things with bits and pieces.
I spent two years in graduate school really focused on how to take this idea that worked, continue to prototype it and then bring it into the market. And when I graduated, one of my mentors said ‘I’m going to buy games to give away as gifts next year’ and I said, ‘I’ll have them for you.’ It pushed me into trying to figure out how to make them, which was incredibly complicated. So I raised some funding to help fund the business and within a year and a half, we were Time Magazine’s number two game of the year, which was a total surprise.
When I graduated, I launched this company and the game started to take off and I realized I wanted to keep chasing the entrepreneurial dream. I worked on the company for about four years and then licensed the intellectual property to another more significant toy company. They now manufacture and sell it.
And then I worked for this tech startup, because I love getting ideas into the market, but it takes too long to get a game into the market. But all the while I knew that I loved the idea of entrepreneurship.
So when Joyce Minor went on sabbatical last semester — she’s in the Econ department — they asked me to come in and teach entrepreneurship and I jumped at the chance. I loved what I had learned at business school and I knew that it’d be my dream job. As this idea continued to bubble and then started to bubble over, there was a need and that’s how I got here.
What are you most excited for in your new role? What are some promising aspects of entrepreneurship at Mac?
I think entrepreneurship can represent a notion of hope for students. I’ve heard people talk about entrepreneurship as having the courage to go out and live your dreams, and I think that what I really would love to see is students who graduate from Macalester and have a sense of where they might go right away. That first year out can be kind of meandering, but I think entrepreneurship can provide an answer to students who ask ‘How am I going to go out and change the world? I am equipped, now, with so much information, and so many ways to think about it, what can I do?’ I think what I’d love is for students who graduate from here to feel like they can get their ideas out into the world, whatever they are, in a more efficient way because we will have given them more tools while they’re here to figure it out. This is a much safer space to try and fail, so then once they graduate, they will be able to get out and be more effective at whatever it is that they want to do. That’s a little bit farther on the horizon.
Students can start to get jobs and careers in those places that are really innovative. I think I’d love to see students who have gone through several processes of learning how you start something, what happens when it starts to fail, how you do you change, what do you start to do? And I think, I hear from a lot of alums who say I really want to come back to Macalester and I don’t really know how to tell my story. I think a lot of them are entrepreneurs who’ve gone out and run their own brewery, designed their own solar company, have an app — there’s all sorts of mac alums who want to come back and help students think about what they want to do. I’d love to start to see that as a more open pathway for people to come back. So that when you go out and do whatever magical thing you’re going to do, this can be a place where you can come back when you want to. Those are two things that I think would be important.
I love ideas. Ideas are exciting; they’re thrilling. What I really hope we see is excitement around ideas on campus. You think about Mac Startups and some of those teams — Nudl is a great example. It started with an idea. Students went through an incubator program and have created what, as far as I can see, a lot of excitement and they’re building community. Imagine what that would look like if there were more students continuing to think about things like how to hack your Macalester experience? What is possible here, and how does that inform what is possible in the world? Nudl is a great example of how exciting entrepreneurship can be and what it can mean in a community.
There’s something around the energy of ideas, but not just ideas, actually putting them into action. Nudl is a great idea, but they’re executing it really well. And that’s what’s most exciting. It’s not exciting because two people sat in a dorm room and said it’d be cool, it’s exciting because it’s got momentum and it’s got intrigue and it’s building community and feeding people.
There are a ton of entrepreneurs on the staff at Macalester: people tinkering with different ideas outside of work. When we talk to each other, it’s really inspiring. I call it the entrepreneurial fever. That kind of entrepreneurial energy that can exist is something I really hope to see. Part of it seeing the energy that’s here already and naming it. And part of it is continuing to fuel that fire. How do we keep that fire that’s been burning for decades, how do we continue to grow it?
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would encourage people who are really curious about entrepreneurship, as well as people who think entrepreneurship isn’t for them but they’ve got an idea and they don’t know what to do with it, I’d love them to come and meet with me. I’m really interested to hear what people think of this idea and how we can continue to build a bigger tent and get more voices at the table. I’d love to help understand what students’ questions are and think about how we keep making this as big and powerful as it can be.
Reiling can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 651-696-6501.