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Educating Entrepreneurs

There are a few tech companies that have an almost mythical creation story: college dropouts working out of their garage to turn an idea into the next big thing.

Yes, it has happened—we have examples ranging from Apple to Facebook. But the truth of the matter is that turning a good idea into a successful business requires a discrete set of skills and knowledge—and the best place to learn them is often in schools that focus on the elusive concept of entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurial Competitions

Santiago Jaramillo, winner of the Taylor University Business Plan Competition 2012, delivers his presentation on online consumer behavior.

Photograph by JEFF MOREHEAD © AP-WWP/Chronicle-Tribune

University of California, Berkeley Bplan winners.
Photograph courtesy
University of California, Berkeley

A striking feature of U.S. entrepreneurial education is the number and variety of contests sponsored by colleges and universities. At Babson College in Massachusetts, for example, students participate in an annual “Rocket Pitch”: three minutes, three PowerPoint slides—no questions. The school’s Entrepreneurial Thought And Action B.E.T.A. Challenge involves more elaborate presentations with a $20,000 prize each at finals.

How many of the entries into these college contests translate into viable businesses is unclear, but they do offer a snapshot of how entrepreneurship education is sparking innovation in a remarkably diverse range of fields.

The first product by Nutraceutical Market Solutions, winner of the Stern School’s $50,000 Social Venture Competition, is a pill that is superior to conventional iron supplements for treating endemic iron deficiency in pregnant Indian women.

At the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Student Technology Venture Competition, the $100,000 prize went to Leto Solutions, comprising eight students who developed a prototype that uses a thermoelectric cooling system for prosthetic limbs, thereby reducing the likelihood of skin infection and painful blisters.

But Leto didn’t win the competition simply with its technology. It had a well-honed business plan for how the company would translate its innovation into a profitable business.

At the University of California, Berkeley, entrants in the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship’s Bplan competition had opportunities to be mentored by entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley and practice their presentations in front of audiences of venture capitalists.

Among the latest winners: Seismos Technologies, which has developed a low-cost technique to increase output from an oilfield by pumping carbon dioxide into an underground reservoir, extracting and separating the oil and carbon dioxide, and then recycling the CO2 back into the well. —H.C.

A growth industry
The number of American schools offering programs in entrepreneurship has exploded in the last decade. The Kaufman Foundation, based in Kansas City, Missouri, finds that 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities offer courses in entrepreneurship—about two-thirds of all schools in the country.

Internationally, the 2012 Global Entrepreneurial Monitor Report estimates a worldwide count of nearly 400 million entrepreneurs in 54 countries.

Contemporary entrepreneurship ­education has not only grown, but spread beyond its familiar business school boundaries, so that the entrepreneurial approach of taking on initiatives and risk can now be found in many liberal arts and science curricula, not to mention professional training in engineering, medicine and law.

At the same time, the core ­entrepreneurship curriculum has remained ­fundamentally the same, focused on the basic building blocks of how to start and run a business, how to prepare a business plan and how to grow your business, says Candida Brush, chair of the entrepreneurship division at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Teaching uncertainty
Harvard Business School defines entrepreneurship as “the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.” This formulation tries to capture several qualities that distinguish entrepreneurship from other kinds of business activities, according to Harvard business professor Thomas Eisenmann.

In other words, entrepreneurs may potentially reap high rewards, but they must operate in a world of high risk, intense competition and great uncertainty.

Babson incorporates this world of risk and uncertainty into its core course, which all students take, called Entrepreneurial Thought And Action. The course stresses that students have to apply two kinds of logic in their work.

One is predictive logic, using the familiar tools of financial research, data analysis and strategic planning. But they must learn to employ creative logic as well.

“They need to understand what the opportunity space entails, which could mean a new technology without any existing standards, or a...social issue,” says Brush. “They need to learn techniques of personal observation, even anthropological research—understanding and talking to people of very different backgrounds.”

Such a skill set is hardly limited to business students. Babson, for example, has launched a one-year master’s degree in management, with a focus on entrepreneurial leadership, specifically for liberal arts students with undergraduate degrees in other fields.

An entrepreneurial background can be important to almost anyone entering today’s job market, says Dan Schawbel, managing partner of the consulting firm Millennial Branding. Economic changes and global competition mean that the old pattern of trading in your college degree for an entry-level job is evaporating, he says, and even paid internships no longer lead to full-time employment at the rates they used to.

One answer is entrepreneurship. “Smart companies fully understand that if they don’t innovate, they won’t exist in the future,” writes Schawbel in his blog. “By recruiting young entrepreneurs, they bring new perspectives and youthful ideas into the workplace.”

Howard Cincotta is a U.S. State Department writer and editor.