New Brunswick: A brain for the world? Pearls of Wisdom from Dr. Dhirendra Shukla

From a recent TJ column:

If someone asked me to name the most entrepreneurial university in Canada (the one most supportive of business startups), my first thought would be the University of Waterloo. However, at the 2014 Startup Canada Awards this year our own University of New Brunswick was named Post-Secondary Institution of the Year.

I recently sat down with Dr. Dhirendra Shukla, chair of the J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology Management and Entrepreneurship, to find out how UNB earned this impressive title.

He told me UNB has made entrepreneurship a priority by combining technical education with entrepreneurial projects and support for business skills development.

In a press release announcing the accolade, UNB president Eddy Campbell says the university “has earned its spot as the most entrepreneurial university in Canada because we’ve established infrastructure on our campuses that empowers our faculty, staff and students to transform ideas into industry-leading technologies and business solutions.”

The university has several entities that support entrepreneurs including the International Business & Entrepreneurship Centre, Pond-Deshpande Centre and Wallace McCain Institute.

But in the end these things always come down to the quality and ambition of the people involved and I am particularly impressed by Dr. Shukla.

He has a PhD in entrepreneurial finance from King’s College in London and was in a senior role at Nortel back in 2009 when UNB came calling. He was recruited to Fredericton to fill the Dr. J. Herbert Smith Chair for Technology Management and Entrepreneurship and hasn’t looked back.

The number of students has swelled since he joined UNB and the school is now churning out on average 10-12 new startup companies per year.

Shukla has given a lot of thought to how the University of New Brunswick can advance its position. He would like the university to be a magnet for young entrepreneurs from around the world. These bright young entrepreneurs would be the feedstock for the province’s business incubation and acceleration centres such as PropelICT and PlanetHatch. In fact, already upwards of 30 per cent of his students are from outside of Canada.

He aspires for UNB to be Canada’s version of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. That is a bold vision as Stanford has graduated more technology company founders than any other university in North America.

Dr. Shukla also has big dreams for New Brunswick.

When he moved here he was impressed by how much space and time this place gives for deep thinking. He told me there is “is no better place to think”. His ambition for New Brunswick is to be a “brain for the world”.

This aligns nicely with my recent musings on the uncomplicated life afforded to New Brunswickers. Will we squander this lifestyle totally on fun and recreation or will be use it to be Shukla’s brain for the world?

He has little patience for naysayers. He has lived on four continents and thinks that anything can be accomplished in New Brunswick.

As he builds his vision for New Brunswick, the new Premier could use a dose of Shukla’s infectious optimism.

In recent months he has been contemplating a new framework for leadership. His has an interesting new take on ‘contextual’ leadership. Different times and contexts call for different leadership styles.

To pursue this line of thought, Shukla is teaching a new course “Leadership in an era of deep change” with former UNB President Dr. John McLaughlin. He told me there is a broad mix of students young and old from a variety of walks of life in the course.

This is a timely subject for New Brunswick. I think most of us are beginning to understand that things are changing in this province. There is no doubt the many demographic, economic and social forces buffeting the province will be transformative in the coming 10-20 years.

But transform into what? Will we be a brain for the planet or one giant retirement village?
I hope Dr. Dhirendra Shukla’s vision wins out in the end.

David Campbell
An economic development consultant based in Moncton