He prides himself on being a rare breed.
Statistically, Dan Young shouldn’t be where he is today, but he’s the first to tell you he wouldn’t change it for the world.
If you knew him as a 13-year-old, you knew him as a paperboy for the local paper. If you knew him as a teenager, you knew him as the stock boy at Happy Harry’s. If you knew him in college, you knew him as a DJ that went by the name DY and he was probably playing some Jay-Z or Alanis Morrisette for your roommate’s party.
Dan Young has, no doubt, had quite the interesting career trajectory. He’s currently an assistant professor at Wilmington University, but his story holds a lot. We sat down with Young so he could explain to us exactly how he combines every experience into a rich curriculum of entrepreneurship education.
(Lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Tell me about how your journey began.
Delivering newspapers in North Wilmington for the local paper when I was 13 years old. I pretty much worked consistently from the time I was 12 until now. I felt like it was a fun job you where could ride around you neighborhood on my bike and throw stuff at houses. I broke a window on accident, that was both an exhilarating and learning experience.
In college I was a DJ. I really like moving people, being on stage, per se. Being a professor is kind of like being on stage, kind of like being a DJ, doing TED talks. It all goes back to my desire to be an influencer, a collaborator. It’s all about influence.
After college I got into academics after I shot down an offer from MBNA because I wasn’t being myself. I got the bug to go into academics. There’s a great program called the Ph.D. Project, an organization that exists to recruit more minorities to being business professors. When I completed my Ph.D., I decided to take a full-time teaching position with Wilmington University because of its mission and because I wanted to give back to my hometown. I wanted to produce opportunities for everyone regardless of background, working with a really diverse class of people, a group of people that had not been given opportunities in the past.
After completing my studies at University of Delaware and Temple, I made the choice to teach. A young black male business professor with a Ph.D. is like a dodo bird riding a unicorn. There aren’t many of us.
Why are you teaching?
I’ve been blessed enough to come a family that has done very well. My great grandfather was one of the first black foremen on the Pennsylvania Railroad. My grandfather was the first black middle-school principal in the state of Delaware. My father received a full scholarship to Harvard University to study psychology, then he ended up becoming one of the heads of human resources at Wilmington Trust. My mom was a career counselor at Howard High School and my wife is an English teacher at Gauger-Cobbs Middle School in Newark. I’m surrounded with this environment of teaching and academia.
How would you describe your teaching style?
I talk about the fact that I grew up with ADHD and dyslexia. When I’m a professor, I assign very few assignments with long papers. Most of my assignments are about tasks and I grade for effort.
For one of the assignments, I sent students to Main Street to write a marketing plan, and I had journalism students follow them around with a camera. Students tend to be relatively collegial so they cover each other’s backs. This is when I was teaching adjunct at University of Delaware, it was a three-hour class. They have to find one business or manager, write a marketing plan, do a competitor analysis, test assumptions of the marketing plan. It’s delivered back to that business in three hours.
I know it’s hard to pick favorites but what’s your favorite class to teach?
At Wilmington University we’re teaching “Managing Innovation and Change.” We talk about established businesses, but we talk about areas of opportunity where people in the business can be more innovative or more entrepreneurial. It’s a class where you create a business then test assumptions by taking students into the business and using their data.
Why are you an entrepreneur?
In my mind, I think it’s very difficult to teach classes in innovation and entrepreneurship and not run my own company. I’m actually a parallel entrepreneur, not a serial entrepreneur. There’s no real point in starting a business unless you think other people will buy it as well.
I start businesses at the same time and they all benefit from each other. Every single business I started, represents some aspect of my personality. Instead of having hobbies, I just have different businesses. It has created a cauldron of what I am right now. If I had my way, everyone who does a dissertation defense would do it in the form of a TED talk.
Besides teaching, what are you working on right now?
I am the organizer of TEDxWilmingtonUniversity, I’m co-organizer for TEDxDover. One of my new companies is called the National Tailgating Association. It’s basically in two parts, it’s a membership association for people who enjoy the tailgating lifestyle can get resources like a magazine, discounts on tailgating equipment, grills, games, things of that nature. We also have an RV that we use for tailgating events. It’s primarily business-to-business company with team-building exercises. For most of the 1990s, teams would do ropes courses and trust falls, but we’re trying to do something different. We have this “blind cornhole” exercise where coworkers will use trust and communication to guide one another to win the game without seeing it.
Our next event is actually in Iowa with the Livestrong Foundation for a weeklong event called RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. We’ll be throwing parties for all the bikers riding across the state.
What’s next for you?
I want to be known as the greatest entrepreneurship and marketing professor in the world, the same way Tony Robbins is known as a motivational coach. I want to start with the state, go national then international. I’ve done entrepreneurship advising in Scotland and in January I’m going go to Barcelona.
I want to go out there and teach innovation in as many spaces as possible, it’s the best method to integrate all knowledge. Our students should always have some sort of an entrepreneurship program that’s available to every single freshman in every single college. It will make them integrate every single aspect of everything they’ve ever learned into selling a product from start to finish.
The way I feel about education, I feel like parents are responsible for their kids education the way. I’m a lifestyle entrepreneur, someone that’s not looking for outside investment, angel investing, venture capitalist. Business is my artform that I use, the legacy I’d like to leave behind. I look at different things that I do and I think of ways to improve them.
Everyone assumes college professors are boring, but maybe I remind my students too much of themselves. I remind them they don’t have to be clowns but they can be different and still teach people. I think that’s generally the comment I’ve gotten from most students. They feel that they can come to me and talk.
Anything that’s happening in my classroom, students can go on Google and find the information that a professor can provide. You can’t hold information back from millennials. I relate to students well and they can see that the version of an academic or professor doesn’t have to be a fixed archetype. I’m going to try to use whatever I need, sternness to reach out to them in such a way that the information and get into their heads and stick there.