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Meet the Professor: Dr. Luke Pittaway

Thursday, January 29 2015 12:00pm

Director for the Center of Entrepreneurship influences education in Europe, Scandinavia; sets sights on US

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By Meredith S. Jensen
Ohio University

Luke Pittaway

ATHENS — Some people are born entrepreneurs. Some people are born educators. Ohio University’s College of Business Director for the Center for Entrepreneurship Dr. Luke Pittaway is a little bit of both.

A native of England, Pittaway has built a reputation throughout Europe for his role in fostering innovation in entrepreneurship education. He’s built centers from the ground up from the UK to Georgia, sparked an interest in assessment reform in entrepreneurship education in Scandinavia, and has become a popular keynote speaker at several leading international conferences.

“I’ve done quite a bit of research in the field, and some of that research is now considered seminal,” Pittaway said. “Scandinavian countries in particular have started to focus a lot on the role of assessment in entrepreneurship education, so they invite me back principally because of that work.”

As director for OHIO’s Center for Entrepreneurship, Pittaway hopes his research and speaking engagements will help shine a spotlight on the school on the banks of the Hocking River. Twice, he has been asked to appear as a distinguished speaker for the Academy of Management’s professional development workshop, alongside two professors from Babson College, one of the top universities for entrepreneurship in the world.

“Here is [Ohio University,] sitting alongside Babson as having someone at the forefront of entrepreneurship thinking,” he said. “We could eventually get this program ranked. But to do that, we have to be in the network; we have to be known. People need to know that I am here and that we’ve got great entrepreneurship programs developing quickly.”

Speaking in the UK and the United States, Pittaway’s skill set is unique in that he fundamentally understands entrepreneurship education in both systems, and how what he has learned in one can affect the other. In September, he was a keynote speaker at the International Entrepreneurship Educators Conference, held at his doctorate alma mater University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he spoke about engagement and outreach practices are used in the US. This year, he will travel to the University of Idaho to speak about building entrepreneurship ecosystems, some of his most-cited work from the UK.

“It’s been sort of strange to be asked to do keynotes,” Pittaway said. “I guess there comes a point where you’ve developed your research to a certain level where it starts to get recognized and people see you as a leading person in your field.”

Growing up in the small business game, the seeds of success in his field were planted at an early age. His family owned and operated a bed and breakfast/pub and restaurant, which naturally led to an initial interest in the hospitality industry. It was something he enjoyed, something familiar, and something he found to be an academic strength — but it wasn’t meant to be his true calling.

Immediately upon earning his bachelor's in hospitality management from the University of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, England, Pittaway began teaching the courses he had just aced and dove headlong into his doctorate studies, a move he noted as “highly unusual.”  He accepted a scholarship to the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to research the social construction of entrepreneurship behavior, effectively launching his lifelong dedication to improving entrepreneurship education.

In his first post-graduate position, Pittaway taught hospitality operations at the University of Surrey and worked to create the school’s first entrepreneurship small business program. This caught the attention of Lancaster University, one of the leading business schools in the UK. In 2000, Pittaway accepted a research position in Lancaster and spent the next five years working with a small team to breath life into a fledgling institution that would later grow to 30 people.

“That was the point that I got interested in not just being an academic in the sense of teaching and research, but actually building programs and centers,” Pittaway said. “I secured about £4 million ($6 million) of regional economic development funding, which was the catalyst for our growth. I was kind of instrumental in getting the institute off the ground. I was a critical team member and I enjoyed that time where we actually built something.”

In 2005, Pittaway moved to the University of Sheffield as the director for Enterprise Education in the Centre for Regional Economic and Enterprise Education.  While Lancaster’s top entrepreneurship program was located within its business college, Sheffield was the opposite. Funded by science enterprise challenge money, successful entrepreneurship programs were thriving in the science and engineering schools. Pittaway was tasked with getting the program going in the business school, as well as supporting the programs university-wide. He was also a critical part of what would become the White Rose Center for Excellence in the Teaching and Learning of Enterprise, a collaborative effort among the University of York, University of Leeds, and Sheffield.

“I was wearing a weird set of caps at that university,” Pittaway said. “A lot of my experience there was working with chemistry professors, architecture, dance, and art — helping them with their entrepreneurship programs. Then I was building the program inside the college of business, and working for the White Rose Center, building a physical infrastructure at each of the campuses.”

Coming to America

During his hospitality studies at Huddlesfield, Pittaway spent a year interning at Walt Disney World’s Grand Floridian Resort. His future wife also took an internship at the park, working in a British pub at the Epcot Center, and they soon formed a professional pact. “We kind of had this unwritten agreement, that we were going to come live in the States at some point,” Pittaway said.

That point came while he was at Sheffield. By then, he and his wife had two daughters, ages six and four, relatively easy ages to get them started in a new life. In 2008, Pittaway took a position at Georgia Southern University to build and run the new entrepreneurship center. In addition to being director for the Center for Entrepreneurial Learning and Leadership, he was also named the endowed William A. Freeman Distinguished Chair in Free Enterprise. It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“Motivation for me was driven a lot by the fact that if you’re going to do entrepreneurship, you’ve got to do it in the States,” he said. “It’s where it started. It’s the place to come to be an entrepreneurship professor.”

Pittaway spent five years in Georgia, building the physical and pedagogical infrastructure for the program. They added a third daughter to the family, and as she and the center grew, he began looking for a new project. Georgia didn’t have a traditional research base, a quality that Pittaway said he prefers in his universities, but he would come to find it at OHIO.

“I’d worked at top research universities in the UK, and Georgia was a teaching college that became a university. It didn’t feel like the place for me long term,” he said. “But I also didn’t want to be at an [Ohio State University] where research is the only thing because I like building programs; it’s all about balance. For me, being at an older institution where research was recognized, but where there were interesting things going on in engineering, and biosciences, and other parts of the university — that was important to me. Ohio University was a perfect fit.”

Pittaway came on board as the director for the Center for Entrepreneurship in 2013, excited to take an already-established program to the next level, a quality he found very attractive at this point in his career. “I like the fact that this wasn’t a pure startup,” he said. “Wherever I’ve gone before, I’ve gone in and started the program from scratch or have been involved in the very early stages. That’s great, but when you’ve done it three times, you don’t always want to do that.”

OHIO’s innovative partnership between the College of Business and the Voinovich School added a dimension to entrepreneurship education that he had never seen before. “There’s nowhere else in the world that I know of that has a center of entrepreneurship that is run in that way,” he said. “We always like to talk about that partnership, but it is unique worldwide.”

The students and citizens in Southeast Ohio also possess a particular spirit that fuels the center’s success. Pittaway praised the “entrepreneurial vibe” on campus and throughout Athens, noting that thanks to programs like TechGROWTH Ohio and Ohio University’s Innovation Center, businesses have already been spun out of the university and have gone on to be successful.

“It makes it exciting for me and for the students,” he said. “It’s a very vibrant place to be looking at entrepreneurship. I think we could become the best place in the state to come study entrepreneurship if we’re not already there.”

— Potpourri —
Five pressing questions for Dr. Pittaway

Do you have a favorite place to eat in Athens or on campus?

“Zoe’s. It’s very good. My wife is vegetarian and we like any of the great, independent restaurants that are buying from local farmers — Casa Nueva, Salaam, Sol, and Lui Lui, and so on.”

Do you have a favorite spot on Ohio University’s campus?

“I think College Green is probably my favorite spot. I like to walk around and just sit and think, especially if it’s warm.”

Which season do you like best in Athens?

“Fall. It has to be. It’s absolutely beautiful. Where I was in Georgia, it was flat and pine forested. I like the fact that here is hilly with a lot of deciduous trees. The topography is very much like where I came from in England.” 

What performances or sporting events have you enjoyed?

“I really enjoy going to watch the football team. My kids like to watch the Marching 110.”

What have you liked most about working with students and faculty here at Ohio University’s College of Business?

“The degree of one-on-one interaction, energy, and entrepreneurial mindset. It keeps the faculty busy; I wouldn’t give it up. I particularly enjoying working with the honors students.”