To Develop Student Entrepreneurs, Colleges Incubate Their Ideas – Students – The Chronicle of Higher Education

May 13, 2012

To Develop Student Entrepreneurs, Colleges Incubate Their Ideas

Michael J. Okoniewski for The Chronicle

John Herb, a student entrepreneur who was given support by Syracuse U., uses his dorm room to scan old family photos for customers of his business.

By Beckie Supiano

John Herb came up with a business idea while he was still in high school. So when it was time to choose a college, he looked for one that would help him develop that idea: scanning people’s old photos and creating a private social network around them. Syracuse University stood out for the Syracuse Student Sandbox, a business incubator, and other resources it offers to would-be entrepreneurs. Mr. Herb just finished his freshman year there, and he was accepted into the incubator for this fall.

Mr. Herb is far from alone. Entrepreneurship has captured the imagination of many students: One observer calls it the “Zuckerberg effect.” Starting something seems not only sexy but possible, with the Internet’s having lowered the barriers a would-be entrepreneur must scale to get an idea off the ground. As students aspire to start the next Instagram, or simply be their own bosses, colleges are responding with more resources than ever to support them.

Beyond student demand for entrepreneurship training, worries about the weak job market are driving colleges’ response. Teaching students to start their own businesses is one way to give them a leg up after graduation. And some institutions see a responsibility to foster job creation more broadly, especially in their own backyards. To that end, they are increasingly offering majors and minors, incubators and accelerators, business-plan competitions and internships—anything from a single academic course or co-curricular program to an array of opportunities—for interested students.

Colleges are well placed to help students become entrepreneurs, says Donna Fenn, author of Upstarts: How GenY Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success (McGraw-Hill, 2009). In addition to established programs, they provide students with access to professors’ expertise and advice, as well as the eager, cheap labor of classmates.

Enlarge Image Competition Pushes Colleges to Incubate Student Entrepreneurs' Ventures 2

Michael J. Okoniewski for The Chronicle

Mr. Herb’s nascent business, which will be incubated by the Syracuse Student Sandbox, creates private social networks on the basis of the images it scans.

“Higher education now is a more ripe environment for entrepreneurship than it’s ever been,” Ms. Fenn says.

Competition can also push colleges to offer the hot new thing: If peer institutions are into entrepreneurship, nobody wants to lag behind. And there’s additional pressure in this case, says Ms. Fenn. If colleges don’t help students start ventures, they might bail out of higher education altogether. The PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has encouraged doing just that, giving fledgling entrepreneurs money to drop out and realize their ideas. Some colleges want to show that students can develop their businesses, maybe even better, on the campus.

Beyond Business School

Babson College has focused on entrepreneurship since before Mark Zuckerberg was born. Back in the late 1970s, it was looking for a way to stand out from other business schools, says Leonard A. Schlesinger, the college’s current president.

So Babson introduced entrepreneurship as an academic discipline and began honoring “distinguished entrepreneurs,” hall-of-fame style. It was a “gutsy move,” he says, made before entrepreneurship was cool. Since then Babson’s approach has evolved—it abandoned a business-plan competition, for instance, to focus more on the quality of ideas.

Mr. Schlesinger has watched entrepreneurship spread across higher education in recent years, and not only within business schools. One reason is the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which has given large grants to a handful of colleges to help them make entrepreneurship interdisciplinary.

Today colleges offer business-development classes in a variety of departments. Career centers have gotten involved. Campus incubators stand ready to serve any student. One goal, of course, is creating ventures; another is creating jobs. Colleges face heightened pressure to prepare graduates for an uncertain world of work. Whether they go into business for themselves, a start-up, or a traditional company, entrepreneurial skills, colleges figure, can help them thrive.

At the University of Texas at Austin, staff in the liberal-arts career-services office are teaching a new course in which students develop a business. The course, one of several entrepreneurship programs at the university, grew out of an observation from a dean, says Katharine Brooks, director of the center and co-instructor of the course. Every college’s career center is doing all it can to prepare students for a limited number of jobs, the dean said. Why not have the center help create jobs?

The University of Miami asked the same question. When William Green started as dean of undergraduate education there five years ago, he met with faculty from all nine undergraduate schools and colleges about new directions for the career center. Faculty members from across the campus told him the same story: Students would come to them before graduation and say they wanted to start something, and the professors wouldn’t know what to tell them. Before long, Miami set out to create a space for entrepreneurship, designing the Launch Pad.

The university wants to make sure that any student, in any field, sees entrepreneurship as a viable career path, says Susan W. Amat, who co-founded the project with Mr. Green. At the same time, it wants to ensure that if students and alumni start ventures, they do so in South Florida.

The Launch Pad, which started in 2008, offers free mentorship to any student who wants to start a business. So far it has led to 80 ventures and 200-plus jobs, Ms. Amat says. And the model has been taken up by other institutions, including Wayne State University and Walsh College, creating a network of students and mentors who can connect with one another locally or nationally.

Community colleges have a network of their own: the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship, which was formed in 2002. Traditionally, community colleges train students for existing jobs, says Trish Truitt, the group’s special-projects manager. Now the colleges are paying more attention to job creation.

When Ivy Tech Community College at Bloomington opened a center for entrepreneurship, its new director turned to the association for support. The college already offered a course in business-plan development but wanted to do more. So it devised a six-course certificate program and started offering advising to would-be entrepreneurs. For that campus, entrepreneurship was a way to stand out from other community colleges. But it might not be unusual for long.

Dakota County Technical College started focusing on entrepreneurship about a decade ago, when its president saw four-year institutions doing so. “We were mavericks,” recalls Christine Mollenkopf-Pigsley, an instructor in business and entrepreneurship at the college, in Minnesota. In the years since, many community colleges have gotten on board, she says. “Those of us that used to be mavericks are now mentors.”

Hands-On Learning

Colleges continue to tinker with the teaching of entrepreneurship, and many take an experiential approach. Whether in a competition, an incubator, or a classroom, they are teaching students how to be entrepreneurs by having them try to start a business. Often students work in teams, which some instructors think models start-up culture. And a number of colleges instruct students not to follow the business plans they’ve created but to test out the value of their ideas first.

The same technological advances that have lowered the barriers to starting a business have also made it easier to teach entrepreneurship in a hands-on way, says Chuck Eesley, an assistant professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. But entrepreneurship is not for everybody, says Ron Morris, who directs the entrepreneurial-studies program at Duquesne University’s business school. “I call it the Marine Corps of business,” he says. Even those students who are cut out for entrepreneurship, Mr. Morris says, ought to work at a start-up and learn from its founder for a few years between graduation and starting a company.

Syracuse has long offered an academic program in entrepreneurship but has stepped up with other efforts in the past few years. In 2009, the first year of the Student Sandbox, groups of one to five students started five businesses; this year the students are working on 35. In a separate process, student entrepreneurs can also compete for seed money.

Hands-on learning makes a big difference, says Bruce Kingma, associate provost for entrepreneurship and innovation. “You can’t teach swimming out of a textbook,” he says. “You have to throw people into the pool.”

Entrepreneurship is a big part of the curriculum at Clarkson University, where freshman business students take a required business-development course of the sort that’s typically offered elsewhere to upperclassmen. Teams of about 20 at the New York institution come up with a business idea in their first semester; pitch it to alumni, who may offer venture capital; and run the company in their second semester. If the ventures are profitable, students can use the gains to pay for tuition and books.

Support from colleges can lead to good outcomes for students. Justin Volling, a senior at St. Olaf College, got two grants from the Minnesota institution: one for a golf camp he has since carried out, and one for an e-commerce business he’s working on now. Meanwhile he landed a job as a business analyst at Target after graduation. His interviewers, he says, were impressed by his entrepreneurial experience.

College is a good time for that, says Mr. Volling. Students don’t have shareholders to disappoint or employees to support, he says. “It’s a perfect place to actually try out your wings.”

The College’s Role

If a student’s venture takes off, should a college benefit? Clarkson administrators say yes. In fact, they’re recruiting promising entrepreneurs.

It all started when the university’s president heard about Matthew Turcotte, a local high-school student who had started his own business, says Marc S. Compeau, director of the campus’s entrepreneurship center. The president asked Mr. Compeau to do what it would take to persuade Mr. Turcotte to enroll at Clarkson. They came to an agreement: Clarkson would cover Mr. Turcotte’s tuition and give him an office in exchange for a stake of up to 10 percent in his company, North Shore Solutions, which provides Web design, branding, marketing, and software development.

Being a full-time student while running a company isn’t easy, says Mr. Turcotte, who is now going into his junior year. But it’s worked out well financially. He has been able to cover his remaining college costs without taking out any loans, so he’ll be in a better position to build his company after graduation. Before Clarkson approached him, Mr. Turcotte thought community college would be his only affordable option.

Meanwhile, Clarkson is expanding its program, albeit slowly. The university has worked out arrangements similar to Mr. Turcotte’s with both a rising senior and an incoming freshman who has a business idea but hasn’t started the venture yet. And next year the campus plans to begin a summer “boot camp” for students from any college. While the programs will bring in money for the business school, Clarkson officials carefully considered the ethical implications, Mr. Compeau says, and designed the deals to put students’ interests ahead of the university’s.

Belmont University has a different approach to cultivating students’ businesses. The Tennessee college offers a number of entrepreneurship opportunities, including a hatchery for new ventures and an incubator for those a bit further along. And faculty offer students a “lifetime warranty” of free advice long after they graduate, says Jeff Cornwall, a professor of entrepreneurship who directs the university’s entrepreneurship center. Professors have agreed not to take a financial interest in students’ companies. It’s important that faculty give their time to students and alumni, Mr. Cornwall says, regardless of how large their ventures—and payoffs—might become.

While professors can’t invest, Belmont’s program does stand to benefit from successful ventures. The university selects certain start-ups to receive a no-interest Runway Loan of $25,000. After the entrepreneurs repay it, they commit to giving 1 percent of their profits back to the program.

Jake Jorgovan has benefited from both the “lifetime warranty” and the Runway Loan. While at Belmont, he and a classmate started Rabbit Hole Creative, which designs video backgrounds for concert tours and events. Mr. Jorgovan graduated in 2011 and now works on the business full time. “I still meet with Jeff probably once every two months or so,” he says, referring to Mr. Cornwall. Often those meetings take place when the young entrepreneur faces a big decision or problem and wants some good advice.

If graduates like Mr. Jorgovan look to their alma maters for support, higher education may be able to claim and keep a reputation as a big player in venture creation.

“The campus is the new frontier for entrepreneurship,” says David J. Miller, director of entrepreneurship at George Mason University’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship. For his Ph.D., he is researching the conditions that allow college students to start successful firms. He is using the historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory of the American frontier.

Like the frontier, colleges provide assets, Mr. Miller says: space and human resources. They offer an unregulated atmosphere with no one person or entity fully in charge. And they are diverse places, both in the traditional sense and in that they bring together scholars from many disciplines.

Turner thought the frontier set the stage for America’s success as a nation. Now colleges are trying to make that kind of mark on entrepreneurship.

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