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School Rules

Help for your business may be as close as the nearest college or university.

For years, entrepreneurship and college were mutually exclusive. In fact, universities were often places entrepreneurs dropped out of to start businesses.

But like the rest of the world, colleges and universities have recognized the power of small-business ownership, and many of these institutions have designed programs to nurture budding captains of their own destinies. These programs range from a simple collection of business classes to entire entrepreneurship departments.

  • Making The Grade

"There are about 50 good college or university-based entrepreneurship programs around the country," says Charles Heller, director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Heller identifies three elements that comprise a good entrepreneurship program. "Number one is a mentor program, and the mentors must not only be academics but people who have been there and done it," says Heller, who founded and ran two computer software companies for 18 years before creating the Dingman Center. "Our program has 180 mentors, about 60 percent of whom are successful entrepreneurs volunteering their time."

Heller says good programs also have mechanisms for connecting entrepreneurs with capital. At DePaul University in Chicago, the Private Enterprise Network offers a forum in which rapidly growing companies can communicate their growth plans to an audience of private and angel investors. "We generally take one company per year--the most promising firm we can find--and help it structure a plan that puts its best foot forward," says Harold Welsch, the Coleman Foundation Chair in Entrepreneurship at DePaul.

An ability to blend education with training is the other crucial element of a good entrepreneurship program, according to Heller.

Once you find a program with these three elements, Heller recommends identifying whether the offerings are academic (where academic credentials are stressed and faculty members are heavily involved) or outreach-oriented (where entrepreneurs are very involved in training and planning). Also, determine whether there are entrepreneurial programs that target your specific segment of the small-business market.

Entrepreneur's HomeOffice conducted an informal survey to give you a better idea of the programs available at colleges and universities. Not every school has all these offerings, so it's best to inquire locally for specifics.

  • Specialized Services

Niche marketing is the lifeblood of small businesses, so why should the programs that serve them be any different? As they mature, entrepreneurship programs are becoming more specialized, says Welsch. Franchising and family business are just a few of the popular specializations. Services targeting creative businesses make up another quickly growing field, thanks to schools like DePaul and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, which have both developed courses focusing on the entrepreneurial side of art.

  • Government Connection

Colleges, universities and the government have established relationships in a variety of areas that can benefit homebased business owners. These include having Small Business Development Centers on campuses and providing assistance with the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer progams. Contact your nearest school for information.

  • Wisconsin Innovation Service Center

Need a little help evaluating the commercial potential of your latest invention? The Wisconsin Innovation Service Center, run by the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater and the University of Wisconsin Extension's Small Business Development Center, offers preliminary technical and market assessment of new product ideas from entrepreneurs nationwide. The center assesses technical feasibility, competitive edge and current trends that might affect product demand. Products reviewed range from biotechnological breakthroughs and software innovations to games and sporting goods. The fee for new product assessment is $495.

  • Internships

Greg Stier's story is a familiar one. The 37-year-old owner of Business Advantage Systems & Networks Inc., a Terre Haute, Indiana, networking and software company, had developed a new software program he believed would catapult his company into the big leagues. But Stier was finding it hard to steer the company where he wanted it to go.

To address this problem, Stier approached the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, about obtaining interns to prospect for customers. "Getting the interns was an attempt to allow us to do the things that pay the bills--networking systems analysis--while we tried to get [this software] out into the world," explains Stier. It would also help him decide whether he needed to hire permanent employees to do this work.

"We want companies to have a project that is related to the student's field of study," says Bill Lindstaedt, director of career services at Rose-Hulman.

In the end, his two interns taught Stier some valuable lessons: that the position he wanted to create in the company would be cost-effective and that setting realistic goals is critical.

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