Young Guns

Staying After School

In 1970, only 16 universities nationwide offered entrepreneurship courses. According to Karl Vesper, a professor of business administration at the University of Washington, today there are more than 400 such schools. Among the most highly regarded are Babson; Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; Harvard Business School in Boston; New York University in New York City; University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles; and the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia. Not only are there more schools offering entrepreneurship programs today, but the in-stitutions that pioneered entrepreneurship education have fine-tuned and beefed up their programs, even adding graduate degrees to the mix.

As far as reputation is concerned, Babson College wins, hands down. It was ranked number one for its undergraduate entrepreneurship program in 1995 and 1996 and for its graduate program in 1995 by U.S. News & World Report. "Most people would agree we have the most complete program in the country," says Bygrave. The undergraduate and graduate entrepreneurship programs were completely revamped three years ago to give students practical information as well as ideas and theories. As part of the MBA program, faculty members team-teach courses so students get two points of view in one class. Babson also touts its mentor program, in which teams of four students work with local corporations on special projects.

Babson's undergraduate entrepreneurship program exposes students to a well-rounded mix of information systems, management and entrepreneurial skills. Each class of ap-proximately 42 students is given $3,000 with which to start a business. During the first semester, students decide on a concept and write a formal business plan; during the second semester, they launch and nurture the company. Businesses have ranged from dorm-room food-service companies to campus CD clubs. "So far, no one's gone bankrupt," says Bygrave, "but if they do, we'll put them through a simulated bankruptcy."

The faculty members at Babson's Center for Entrepreneurial Studies are serious about small business. For one thing, most of them have run entrepreneurial businesses themselves and now want to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. Babson graduate Steve Spinelli, for instance, returned to the school to teach after helping found oil- change franchisor Jiffy Lube and establishing a network of 47 franchises. Bygrave himself started two small businesses before joining the faculty at Babson.

Bouncing their ideas off Babson's professors and students helped Michael Healey and Robert Lofblad launch their Needham, Massachusetts, company, PC-Build Upgrade Centers Inc., before they graduated with MBAs in 1992. The laboratory atmosphere at Babson taught the partners a lot about problem-solving--and gave them a safe place to work out the kinks. "It's a lot easier to defend potential fatal flaws in your business with a professor than to actually be sitting behind the desk when that situation comes up and threatens your business," says Healey, the company's president. "Graduate school makes you [consider potential] problems ahead of time and forces you to work through different scenarios."

Healey says the practical nature of Babson's graduate program also helped inoculate them against failure in the real world. "One of the reasons I went back to school was because I knew I wanted to start my own business, but I lacked marketing skills; I didn't know what it took to launch a business or how to look at and assess opportunities," says Healey. "I had the drive, but I couldn't take that and turn it into a business." That's where Babson came in. Now, five and a half years later, Healey and Lofblad's $4.5 million company has three locations and shows no signs of slowing down.

Theirs is not the only apr├Ęs-graduation success story. The Entrepreneur Program at USC hosts an annual networking day where graduates compete with each other to present their stories to their fellow alumni. In March, more than 110 alums competed for 10 spots. The chosen businesses ranged from a coffeehouse and an auto towing business to several Internet companies.

Entrepreneur Program director Tom O'Malia says more and more students are showing interest in USC's undergraduate and graduate entrepreneurship disciplines. Why? "They're being realistic," says O'Malia. "Our full-time MBA students are looking to join emerging firms. They know they don't want to end up working for a large, bureaucratic company. And our nighttime graduate students know what they don't want to do. The cubicle [they sit in during the day] is a little too tight and stifling."

Of course, USC's Entrepreneur Program is no walk in the park. Completing the courses in the face of the typical college distractions is almost as challenging as, well, running a small business. "The average student spends 300 to 400 hours writing a business plan in the second semester of their undergraduate year," O'Malia says. "We're competing against the beach and the beer, and to get that many hours out of somebody is pretty incredible."

Part of the allure is USC's faculty. Like most instructors in entrepreneurship programs, those at USC have run and sold their own businesses, so they know whereof they speak. O'Malia describes USC's seven entrepreneurs-turned-professors as having the "battle scars and torn pants" to prove their mettle.

Luckily, the kind of students drawn to entrepreneurial programs makes teaching them that much easier, according to Allan Bailey, executive director of San Diego State University's (SDSU) Entrepreneurial Management Center. "There are always arguments about whether entrepreneurs are born or made, and although there's a lot to be said [on both sides], a curriculum like this helps [young entrepreneurs] develop tools and skills to complement their own personal attributes and drives," Bailey says. "If we can help them avoid some mistakes, that will improve the potential success rates of those who gravitate into the entrepreneurial venue."

SDSU's program is heavy on the MBA side and light on the undergraduate side (two classes--Introduction to Entrepreneurship and In-troduction to Writing a Business Plan). But as with other schools' programs, interaction with community businesses is a large part of SDSU's regimen.

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This article was originally published in the October 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Young Guns.

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