Spring break is often a time when students relax and recharge.

Anthony Ambrose, a junior majoring in business administration at the Gabelli School of Business, spent his break trying to see how many times he could get rejected.

As part of a Gabelli School of Business course called Innovation and Resilience, taught by Julita Haber, Ph.D., Ambrose visited numerous places around his hometown of Moorestown, New Jersey, with the goal of hearing the word “no” at least 10 times.

Anthony Ambrose headshot
Anthony Ambrose

Could a local pretzel shop make him 500 pretzels in 10 minutes? No. Could he use a leaf blower inside a friend’s living room? No. He even asked an employee at Target if he could display clothes as a living mannequin. Also, no, but with a giggle.

“That was very uncomfortable for me. I even shed a tear when I asked for it because I felt I would be rejected. But before the Target employee rejected me, she smiled and giggled because I had that ounce of hope,” he said.

“I’ve never done anything like it before. It was pretty crazy.”

As part of her course, Haber required students to reach out to friends, family members, and strangers and make 21 bold requests that would result in at least ten rejections.

Because 7 in 10 new businesses will fail within three years, she said, entrepreneurs need to be accustomed to hearing the word “no”.

“Students sometimes have a hard time giving or getting feedback. They avoid a lot of confrontation, and they perceive the word no as negative. We need to strengthen them to be more capable to take no,” said Haber, an associate clinical professor.

“That is the foundation for entrepreneurship.”

Saying ‘No’ as Well as Hearing It

Julita Haber
Julita Haber

In a separate exercise, Haber pitched business ideas to students to get them used to the idea of saying “no” as well as hearing it.

“Students can have a really hard time both giving and receiving feedback. They’re very kind, and they avoid a lot of confrontation, so they perceive ‘no’ as a negative thing,” said Haber, who credited Gabelli School assistant professor Sophia Town, Ph.D., for the idea.

The exercises are part of an emphasis on learning five “discovery skills” described in The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators  (Harvard Business School, 2011), which students read for class. Those skills include associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.

Sometimes ‘No’ Is Really ‘Not Now’

For Ambrose, the exercise was illuminating. Occasionally, the “no’” he was looking for never came, such as when he went to a local Wawa and asked if he could have a free cup of coffee instead of paying $1.89. The clerk told him to go ahead and take it. And when he asked if he could intern over the summer at a local real estate brokerage, the answer was more like “not now” than “no.”

“The woman at the brokerage took my email, and she said she would keep me in mind if any internship came up elsewhere at any other company,” he said.

“I thought that was pretty cool. Just because you get rejected doesn’t mean that you’re totally cut off from something; it could open up more doors down the road.”

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Patrick Verel can be reached at Verel@fordham.edu or (212) 636-7790.