New PhD Aims to Create Opportunity, Success

By Robin Herron

Mona Anita K. Olsen

Mona Anita Olsen. Photo courtesy of Mona Anita Olsen

Mona Anita Olsen is all about entrepreneurship and making a difference.

Assistant director of the Mason Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for several years, Olsen earned a Fulbright grant in 2012 and departed for Norway, where she completed dissertation research for a PhD in Education. No surprise that her dissertation was on entrepreneurship education, a topic she is passionate about. She graduates from George Mason University this spring.

“While I certainly hope the results of my research will make a difference, the most important lesson from my experience as a Fulbrighter in Norway has been that it is a conscious choice to leverage our education to propel us upward as we create opportunity,” Olsen says.

Although her family heritage is Norwegian, Olsen says that adjusting to living in Norway, with a harsher climate, a higher cost of living and a different time zone, was more difficult than she expected. “It taught me a lot about discipline, identity and survival,” she says.

To stay disciplined about her research goals, Olsen mapped out her daily tasks on a chalkboard and kept a journal to record reflections at the end of each day on what she had learned. Without the support network of family, friends and colleagues, Olsen had to find new ways to motivate herself and acclimate to Norwegian society. And with the higher cost of living, Olsen had to stretch her stipend and even took on a part-time job.

“I learned to be thankful for my entrepreneurship skills so I could help create opportunities for success for myself and for others during the course of the grant year,” Olsen notes.

Mona Anita K. Olsen sign

Olsen in Norway, where she did her dissertation research with the help of a Fulbright grant. Photo courtesy of Mona Anita Olsen

Olsen already had plenty of practice, both at the Mason SBDC and as the founder of iMADdu (“I Make a Difference, Do You?”), an educational nonprofit that provides mentoring and apprenticeship opportunities to aspiring student entrepreneurs.

Olsen continued working with iMADdu when she was in Norway and even set up the organization’s first virtual apprenticeships last fall. “It was very rewarding to prove that our systems worked well enough to be able to manage students back in the U.S. in a virtual fashion,” she says.

A true entrepreneur, Olsen has already mapped out her next steps. Shortly after collecting her new PhD, Olsen will move to Ithaca, N.Y., to work at Cornell University.

She will have a dual teaching and administrative appointment at the School of Hotel Administration as a visiting assistant professor and assistant director of the Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship. She is also working on two new entrepreneurship courses that she will teach next spring and planning research activities to build a resource for best practices in entrepreneurship education at the university level.

Olsen says she is grateful for having a dissertation committee that pushed her to excel in her research and meet her goal of earning a degree by May 2013.

“As a result of my Fulbright experience, I learned how to embrace all of the lessons from the journey of my Mason education. My Mason experience taught me about the importance of vision, not only through coursework and campus activities but by watching Mason reinvent its own vision to be the best university for the world,” she says.

“As I graduate and reflect on the highly competitive job market, I think about how Mason has taught me and my peers to distinguish ourselves by teaching us to set concrete Patriot visions. With a Patriot vision, we give a rhythm, a speed and a strategic context for all the knowledge we share to the world. When we do that, we build something that is better than the place that we found; we create a legacy that honors the people who fully enriched our lives; and we create an environment for success.”