March 24, 2014
In almost every aspect of life, college campuses are microcosms of the real world, especially when it applies to startups. Classroom presentations are traded in for pitches to VC’s and thesis papers are exchanged for detailed business plans. By now, a number of startup leaders and experts have determined that universities are one of the best places to launch a business; the combination of a highly motivated generation and the “fail proof” model of creating a startup in college seem to be the major factors pushing this trend.
The Kauffman Foundation reported that 253 schools taught entrepreneurship in the 1980’s compared to more than 2,000 universities today. This rise in entrepreneurship curricula shows an effort from universities to match the demand of students who want enhance their knowledge of the inter-workings of any startup – design, business, engineering, marketing (the list goes on and on).
So how do we truly determine the “real” college entrepreneurship programs from just the schools that just offer curricula?
- It’s All About The Method: Whether it’s through theory, case studies or hands-on learning, the teaching approach divides the average programs from the crème de le crème.
- The Uniqueness Factor: Most universities have their own accelerators, but some of standout colleges have incubators specific to certain industries such as sports, fashion or health and bring in experts from those fields.
- The “Regional Effect”: Believe it or not, universities tend to mirror their environment; Columbia University seems to have a strong resemblance to NYC’s Silicon Alley.
- Keeping up with Industry Trends: All ideas are encouraged, but universities that prompt their students to anticipate where the field will be in the future seem to be on the right track…. Think wearables and 3D Printing.
Since September, I’ve traveled to various colleges to interview student-run startups, but also to better understand and compare university startup cultures in both the Midwest and on the East Coast. I’ve visited:
- Large State Schools (Michigan State University and Ohio State University)
- Private Universities (Syracuse University, Villanova University and RIT),
- Ivy Leagues (Cornell, Columbia and UPenn)
- Liberal Arts Colleges (Bucknell University and Ithaca College)
Ultimately, this “college startup tour,” (formally called The Next Zuck) has brought a few questions to my mind:
Is there really a difference in the way entrepreneurship is taught at liberal arts, state, public, private and Ivy League schools? And even within a school itself?
The simple answer is yes – at it’s core, a liberal arts school is typically the polar opposite of a state university; not only is the curriculum different, but the “regional effect” (as mentioned above), environment, size, core values and resources play an enormous part in how colleges implement and execute their entrepreneurship programs.
People have asked me what college startup program I like the most. I don’t have a favorite because there’s something I like about what each institution has to offer.
For example, when I visited the Dana Engineering School at Bucknell University, Many of the students spoke to me about the effectiveness of their curriculum – working on startups in and outside of class, the students had the chance to combine their tech, engineering and business skills with an entrepreneurial mindset as well as pitch at the Bucknell Business Pitch Competition.
Additionally, at Michigan State University, I visited “The Hatch” (MSU’s student incubator) where student CEO’s were assisted by 14 paid student interns who served as financial and design analysts among other roles to help them improve their business.
So how are universities teaching entrepreneurship?
- Theory: You can’t learn entrepreneurship in the classroom, but some argue that financial, engineering and similar skills related to the growth of a startup are best learned in the classroom.
- Hands-on: It’s all about getting your hands dirty. Incubator and semester programs give students a chance to run their businesses with benchmarks to keep them on track.
- Entrepreneurs-in-Residence and Other Mentors: The best way to learn is to emulate. Some colleges have entrepreneurs-in-residence who either live on or close to campus to help students not only build their business, but also offer advice based on their own successes and failures.
Ultimately, the approach matters, but there isn’t a set formula.
Despite the differences, I did find at least one commonality among most college entrepreneurship programs: teach students how to have, improve and maintain their entrepreneurial mindset.
Don’t believe me? According to Mashable, more than 90 percent of startups won’t succeed (and the number is probably higher for college students), but instilling the entrepreneurial mindset proves to have some credibility in the long run– here’s why:
- Students will have the skills to start another company (if the first one doesn’t make it).
- They can become intrapraneurs at larger corporations or help a small business improve their strategy in marketing, social media, business or sales.
- Students can use it to move their venture forward as well as embody and understand the entrepreneurial spirit.
Universities can only do so much to teach entrepreneurship and offer resources, which means it’s up to the students to apply what they have learned to their business. This leads me to my final question of can entrepreneurship be taught?
Even in academia, the positions on this question vary, but there’s some validity to each side:
- People are/aren’t born entrepreneurs: some argue that people are born with certain skills to become entrepreneurs – can you really teach someone to be a visionary? Or is it innate?
- Students are figuring it out on their own: Some of the most successful entrepreneurs haven’t finished college – they saw an opportunity and figured out how to market, fund and grow their startup without college guidance.
- Anything can be taught: To use a sports analogy, most coaches claim you can’t teach speed, hustle or height. People are born with certain advantages, but it is possible to improve an athlete’s speed through training and flexibility… so is there potential to both teach creativity and even train someone’s mind?
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