A new frontier: how cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset leads to great results

Steve Hanna

Steve speaking at the 2017 Stanford Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate Awarding Ceremony

Understanding the nuances of innovation is the key to launching and leading breakthrough products and services. Just ask Steve Hanna, a seasoned product manager whose team built and launched the world’s first QLC data center storage product, which Hanna says is revolutionizing the speed of the servers that power our digital lives. To pull this off, Hanna utilized innovation and entrepreneurial techniques learned at Stanford to help move his industry forward. 

Hanna is married, the father of two young girls, and the author of the memoir, A Home Called Your Own: A Journey Across Six Generations, a true story about his journey to find his family that paid a price to set him free. A passionate advocate of education, he shared his reflections on completing Stanford’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SI&E) program.

What drew you to Stanford’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship program?

Before applying to the SI&E program, I’d spent a few years in the innovation trenches architecting and designing Micron’s worldwide content marketing campaigns from the ground up. This was back in the early days of content marketing when it was just becoming a thing, and I was able to come up with a method that enabled us to go from creating 1 asset to 100 assets in the same amount of time. As a result, I was given the opportunity to create and scale Micron’s global marketing campaigns for our consumer, gaming, and enterprise products sold in the commercial channel. It felt like being on the frontier, leading the team to places we’d never been.

This type of frontier environment required a total and complete mindset change, a whole new way of doing. I realized there was no map for where we were going, and the only guides were others who’d also ventured into the unknown. Stanford’s SI&E program is full of those people and frontier experiences, so it felt like a natural fit.

There were also so many unique courses that jumped out that are only available through this program, courses like Cultivating the Entrepreneurial Mindset, Building Business Models, Empathize and Prototype, Financing Innovation, Leading Innovation, and Scaling Excellence in Innovation. These were things I wanted to learn. The SI&E program also provided the opportunity to get plugged into the Stanford community and work alongside innovators and entrepreneurs from around the world. Most of my classes had over 50% international students, which was really special.

What inspired you to pursue professional development?

Originally, I thought about getting an MBA. That was the plan. But, after looking into it, the cost just didn’t make sense. What I really wanted and needed was practical knowledge and tools on how to run and scale businesses on the frontier of technology and innovation. I didn’t want to get bogged down in boring stuff (to me) like business law and compliance – I wanted to jump right into the core things that shape building and leading change. While looking for alternatives to MBA programs, I stumbled across Stanford’s Center for Professional Development and their hybrid in-person/online offerings, and I knew this was it. As I read about each course, I found my heart racing and I was excited, a feeling I hadn’t felt when preparing my applications for top MBA programs. While those programs looked interesting, these courses looked exciting – and that’s exactly what they were. What you think you’ll get out of this program is exactly what you’ll get, especially as you connect with people outside of class and help fellow innovators and entrepreneurs win.

What benefits have you seen from the program?

The depth, breadth, and quality of content covered in the SI&E program is incredible. The lessons you learn through Stanford’s online and in-person coursework go beyond what is covered in most MBA programs, based on what many of my friends learned in their MBAs vs what I learned in the SI&E program (various friends and colleagues were doing both at the same time). The value of Stanford’s courses is tremendous, especially compared with other post-graduate programs that cost tens of thousands of dollars. My friend Brandt Roberts from the SI&E program (who also has an MBA, as do most students in the program) describes SI&E accurately when he says, “a standard MBA gives you the toolbelt but doesn’t necessarily go into how to use each tool to achieve specific results. The SI&E program does the opposite. It assumes you have the tools and focuses on how to use them to build businesses that matter.” By the end of the program, I was able to do that and build innovative financial models, pitch to VCs with confidence, and architect/pivot business models based on customer development best practices and honed design thinking experience. During and after the program, I was able to translate the learning into action and raise tens of millions of dollars, lead a team that produced several patents, and launch the world’s first QLC SSD, a leadership product in my industry.

How has the coursework helped you professionally?

I actually ended up doing every course in the SI&E program because I enjoyed them so much. To finish the program, you need to do eight classes and I completed 16, including both the on-campus and online classes that were offered. I also read and dog-eared every book on each course’s recommended reading list, and the reading lists are a bonus of the program, which can help further direct your learning after each course ends.

A notable part of the SI&E program is its focus on your mindset and honing your thinking. By the end of the program, the entrepreneurial mindset becomes a part of you—or a stronger part of you. The spirit of Stanford and all it represents begins to flow through you, and it changes the way you can lead your organization through the series of small and subtle tweaks and techniques that collectively make a big difference, particularly when doing category creation. I’d been leading all of these different teams—product development, marketing, sales, etc.—into the unknown and the lessons in Leading Innovation proved invaluable in getting buy-in from each department, maintaining team confidence in the master vision (despite not seeing initial development success), and staying the course to deliver a winning products.

Overall, the SI&E program’s integrated focus on teaching both skills and mindset makes you a better leader and personal entrepreneur. It changes the questions you ask and how you ask them so you can better assess and pursue new opportunities that will come your way.

What advice do you have for someone interested in the program?

Identify what you want in life, then work backwards to figure out the best way to get there. In my case, I thought I needed an MBA, but really I needed the skills and the knowledge to lead innovation at scale.  The Stanford Innovation and Entrepreneurship program gives you the flexibility to take courses at your own pace. You can try it out and see if it works for you.  Also, you can complete the program while raising kids, and it’s designed to be integrated with the rest of your life and everything going on. It’s certainly a demanding program as you’d expect, but because you can progress at your own pace, you can dial your timeline up or down based on what’s going on in your life.

The program delivered the knowledge and skills I needed, along with so much more. It can do the same for you, and if you’re on the fence – go for it!