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Class Is in Session

Even the most seasoned executives can benefit from business classes.

When W. David Hellyer, 50, took the plunge into self-employment in 2004, he had a bachelor's degree in business administration and psychology as well as 26 years of experience in corporate America, including many years as the general manager of a manufacturing company. Yet one of his first moves after co-founding Kadat Partners LLC in Pinegrove Mills, Pennsylvania, was to contact the Penn State Small Business Development Center office and sign up for its basic business classes.

Why in the world would such a clearly talented, experienced and successful businessman spend time studying business basics at that point in his career? "I ran a corporate business, but a lot of things were done automatically for me," says Hellyer, whose company operates three Comfort Keepers franchises, providing non-medical in-home care for older adults. The company had nearly $1 million in revenue for 2005. "For instance, I didn't truly understand P&L statements vs. cash flow statements, because I had financial people who worried about those things for me. All I had to worry about was the manufacturing end. The SBDC classes were very useful, because they empower you and put you in control of your own destiny."

Such is the power of education, whether it's rendered by an organization like an SBDC or by one of America's hallowed academic institutions. And Hellyer's story isn't uncommon. Many entrepreneurs who embark on new business ventures after age 50 discover that, while their enthusiasm is high and their knowledge of their core subject area is exemplary, certain gaps in their basic business knowledge can only be filled by further education.

One of the easiest ways to fill those gaps is by pursuing an online education. Many universities nationwide offer online distance learning opportunities, ranging from core classes like business writing to full-fledged MBA degree programs. What makes these courses particularly attractive to entrepreneurs age 50 and up is that there's no need to sit in a classroom with students who are young enough to be their children--or their grandchildren, for that matter--which can be intimidating to people returning to the world of aca-demia after a decades-long absence.

"We also find that entrepreneurs prefer online classes because they have the freedom to do things their own way," says Timothy E. Landon, director of graduate programs for the School of Management at the University of Michigan, Dearborn. "Online education is less structured. Students can set their own hours and work on their education whenever they choose. It's the ideal mechanism for people who are very busy and perhaps not very patient doing things in a highly structured manner."

While online students can do their course work at 3 a.m. or 3 p.m.--or both, if they wish--they still have a high level of interaction with the course instructor and other students. They're responsible for certain activities and must meet deadlines, just as they would if they were taking classes in person. "Pursuing online education requires more self-discipline and self-motivation, which are traits many entrepreneurs already have," Landon says. "Research shows that online education is ideal for those who are driven to entrepreneurial pursuits."

Finding the right online program is as easy as Googling terms like "online business degrees" or "distance learning." One of the best- known online education providers is the University of Phoenix, which offers bachelor's and master's degrees in a number of disciplines. However, many of America's top universities, including Harvard, Penn State, the University of Illinois and the Univer-sity of Michigan, offer accredited online education programs.

Says Hellyer, "Getting as much education and training as you can, whether in a classroom or through an organization like the SBDC, really improves your chances of business success."

Eileen Figure Sandlin is an award-winning freelance writer and author who writes on business topics.

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This article was originally published in the June 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Class Is in Session.

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