Remember wanting to get out of school and make money? If money's still your goal, it may be time to return to academia, where a growing number of business schools are giving new meaning to the term "student aid."
"Professors at many schools are becoming involved as advisors or investors to help launch student business ventures," observes Jerry White, director of the Caruth Institute at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Faculty members at UCLA, Harvard, Stanford, Cornell and the University of Colorado have invested in or worked with students or former students. "There's a trend at business schools to help students with seed--or concept--funds," says White. Although he's never invested in any student projects, he's considering starting a venture capital fund: "We're talking to businesspeople about it. We must decide if it will be strictly for students or also for alumni, or will we look at any deal? Most [funds] give preference to students."
That's the thinking at Columbia University, where alumnus Eugene Lang donated $1 million to sponsor the school's venture-capital program, which invests up to $250,000 in any single venture; funds are available only to current students.
"Columbia's the only school to have reached this level. The University of Michigan's fund isn't fully funded; UCLA and Wharton have small amounts of money," says Murray Low, director of the Entrepreneurship Program at Columbia Business School. "We have an alumni advisory panel that works with students and a board of heavy hitters in the venture community. So we're not limited to $250,000 if a deal's worthy of a larger investment."
Low emphasizes, "The mission of our program is to make entrepreneurship a viable career option for MBA students. Our venture fund energizes our curriculum and gets alumni involved as mentors. That's an enormous help to students."
The onetime entrepreneur attributes the trend to the growth and improved quality of entrepreneurship programs. "Ten years ago," Low explains, "I would have advised aspiring entrepreneurs to learn on their own. Today, we have well-developed entrepreneurship curricula that can help students fast-track their businesses--not just at Columbia but at many schools. We are generating more viable business ideas with greater economic potential."
Paul DeCeglie (MrWritePDC@aol.com) is a former staff reporter for Journal of Commerce and American Banker.