An Entrepreneur at Heart

By Daniel Gross

At age 90, Zenas Block is still trying to get students to think differently. In 2001, the year he retired from NYU Stern, Block created a fund to support afterschool programs in Salisbury, CT, where the longtime New York resident now lives. “We want to get them to think creatively, to consider failure as only a step toward success, and to start feeling that they can do things that they never dreamed they could do.”

And that’s precisely what Block set out to do 25 years ago when he helped start NYU Stern’s entrepreneurship program. In the late 1970s, the City College graduate retired from active business after selling his stake in DCA Food Industries. Block was interested in teaching a course about starting new businesses within existing corporations. After all, in his 32 years at DCA, Block had started joint ventures in Japan and England and several new businesses in the US. “I was struck by the disparity between what it took to start a new business and what it took to run an old business,” he recalls, “and how the management principles were in conflict with what was optimum for each.”

He believed the best way to conduct research was to teach a course on corporate venturing. But at the time, university-level study of entrepreneurship was in its infancy. “Entrepreneurship was learning how to start a small business and keep it small,” he said. “It wasn’t designed for large corporations.”

Block quickly found that NYU Stern offered an entrepreneurial environment. Soon after offering to teach a course in corporate venturing as an adjunct professor in 1981, he organized and led the Faculty Task Group that established the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, raising $500,000 from the Price Foundation. “The goal we set was to become a significant center for research in the area, because entrepreneurship was not regarded as academically respectable,” said Block. He started a competition for the best academic paper, held retreats in which students presented business plans, and, most significant, developed and taught two elective courses: Patterns of Entrepreneurship and Entrepreneurship and Venturing in Corporations.

The rest is institutional and academic history. Block taught and helped run the program through the 1990s, while finding the time to co-author the well-received book, Corporate Venturing: Creating New Businesses Within the Firm (Harvard Business School Press, 1993). In recent years, entrepreneurship has evolved into a thriving field of study, and NYU Stern’s Berkley Center for Entrepreneurial Studies has emerged as a recognized center of research. In 1999, NYU Stern established the Zenas Block Scholarship, which honors outstanding academic achievement by an MBA student.

Awarded the Citibank Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1993, Block says he sometimes hears from students who went on to start enterprises. Scott Berrie (MBA ’99), who won the inaugural Stewart Satter Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, wrote his business plan in Block’s entrepreneurship class.

In recent years, Block has provided advice on NYU Stern’s entrepreneurship curriculum, which has grown to include more than 20 courses, to Berkley Center’s Academic Director Professor William Baumol, who is working on several books that focus on innovative entrepreneurship. Block was also one of the individuals who helped draft the Center’s successful proposal for a $1 million challenge grant from the Kauffman Foundation, which will fund a pan-campus initiative to make entrepreneurship education a common and accessible campus-wide opportunity.

Formally retired from Stern in February 2001, Block founded and organized the privately financed Salisbury Central School Educational Enrichment Fund, which is designed to help children in kindergarten through 8th grade discover and develop their individual talents. “In our afterschool workshop program, SOAR (Seek, Originate, Aim, Reap), we’ve worked with over 1,000 kids in five years,” he said. “It’s fun!”

Daniel Gross is editor of Sternbusiness.