Babson Magazine

Fall 2018

A Fascination with Entrepreneurship

Through the lens of a sociologist, professor Phillip Kim examines the role of entrepreneurs in society and how they build thriving startups.

Photo: Tom Kates
Phillip Kim, associate professor of entrepreneurship

Phillip Kim has long been fascinated by entrepreneurs. What motivates them to go into business for themselves? How do they generate ideas? What steps must they take to turn brainstorms into viable enterprises? And how do governments and institutions help or hinder their efforts? “I’ve always been interested in how people create something out of nothing, something that actually persists and flourishes,” says Kim, especially given the many hurdles to success.

An associate professor of entrepreneurship, Kim gives credit to his parents for inspiring his career, though they never launched businesses themselves. They immigrated to the United States from South Korea in the late 1960s, settling in the Chicago area, where Kim was born a few years later. “They came to the U.S. to look for economic security and opportunity,” Kim says. “I respect the pioneering approach to life that went with that.” Moving to a new country involves an entrepreneurial attitude, he says, including a curiosity and openness to new people, places, and ideas.

That curiosity continues to motivate him, and he hopes to cultivate it in his students. After coming to Babson in 2014, Kim designed an elective course that takes MBA students to Sweden for an intense week focused on technology, entrepreneurship, and design. Despite having a population of just 10 million people, Sweden has launched a host of iconic companies, including IKEA, clothing retailer H&M, Volvo, Spotify, and 142-year-old electronics and technology company Ericsson. The capital, Stockholm, also is home to a “thriving startup ecosystem,” Kim says.

During the trip, his students visit several companies and collaborate with Swedish business students on a design challenge. Kim says they also get the opportunity to observe an economy with higher taxes and a more robust social-welfare system than is found in the U.S. “It’s a different environment that I love my students to learn about, so they come back with a sense of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in different parts of the world.”

The place of business in society is particularly interesting to Kim, who earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of North Carolina. He saw business as a field where he could combine his varied academic interests, including the topics of creativity and creation (the process of “making something of value from nothing,” Kim says) and the wide-ranging impact that relationships between people and organizations can have on the entrepreneurial process. Successful entrepreneurs, he says, are skilled at convincing other stakeholders to support their cause.

“As a sociologist, I think more broadly about the purpose of entrepreneurship in society,” he says. “Social scientists, and sociologists in particular, care about questions of inequality and justice.” Business owners obviously need their ventures to be profitable, but, says Kim, “I also believe that entrepreneurship should be about serving society as well. That makes this exciting to study as well as teach. How can you create wealth, but do it in a way that serves society and humankind at the same time?”

He spent eight years on the faculty of the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison before coming to Babson, a logical academic home for him because of its entrepreneurial focus. He likes that Babson prepares its students to apply startup thinking to a range of settings, including established companies, educational institutions, and nonprofits. “I also really like the overall mission of our college, to help our students become leaders who know how to generate value both economically and socially,” Kim says.

In addition to the Sweden course, Kim teaches the introductory entrepreneurship course for MBA students, “Entrepreneurship and Opportunity,” and serves as the faculty director of the Blended Learning MBA program, in which students learn through a combination of online and face-to-face courses.

Kim’s research touches on a range of entrepreneurial topics. He recently examined technology licensing agreements used to commercialize university inventions. He’s also interested in what factors give new companies staying power. “How are businesses able to survive, thrive, and scale so that they will be able to last for a longer period of time?” asks Kim. In one study, he showed that companies based around the founder’s leisure interests or hobbies tend to be established more slowly than other startups but are more likely to be profitable long term. Kim theorizes that the personal experience makes owners better able to understand their customers, products, and services. They’re also more likely to enjoy the work and be less discouraged by hurdles, he says.

When he’s not on campus, Kim spends much of his own leisure time cheering on his three daughters, ages 15, 11, and 8, at their sporting events and other activities. He loves traveling with his family; he and his wife and daughters recently visited the Baja California area of Mexico.

Moving to Boston in 2014 didn’t alter his behavior as a baseball fan; he remains loyal to the Chicago Cubs, his hometown team. He watches the scores online and tries to see a game in person at least once a year.

Relationships and connections are more than an academic interest for Kim. “I try to stay in touch with as many of my colleagues and former students as I can,” he says. “That’s one of the best parts of my job: getting to meet so many different people from different backgrounds and different parts of the world.”

And he enjoys introducing his many contacts to one another for jobs or advice or friendship. “I’m like the Velcro that brings together different parts of my network,” says Kim. “I try to do that as much as I can.”