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Real Smart

Your academic experience doesn't have to be all about the grade.

Have you ever wondered how academic grades play into entrepreneurial success? We know you can be a successful entrepreneur even if your college report card is abysmal, and we know an A in your class won't guarantee your business success. But that doesn't mean you should dismiss your class performance altogether. "It's important to work hard and do your best, and the grades will follow," says Jay Azriel, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. The skills and knowledge you take away from your classes are far more important than grades, notes Azriel. It's better to get a C and have a firm grasp of a subject like accounting or financing or business writing than to earn an A but walk away from the class without a clue.

Although Michael Schneider, 25, loves entrepreneurship, he didn't do particularly well academically in college--and he was already running a business at the time. He had started Fluidesign, a Los Angeles-based web design, graphic design and technology consulting company, in 1998, while still in high school. As a student at the University of Southern California, Schneider did just enough studying to get by and saved most of his energy for running the business--much to the dismay of his professors. "I really didn't balance it," recalls Schneider. In fact, he had difficulty getting into USC's Marshall School of Business with his poor grades. It was only after appealing to the director of admissions in a personal interview, where he convinced her of his entrepreneurial drive, that he was admitted. Though Schneider struggled with grades until his graduation in 2003, his business is quite successful. Fluidesign is slated to earn $1.8 million in 2006.

Like Schneider, many entrepreneurial students find balance hard to achieve. The myriad responsibilities facing students today is one likely reason grades can't measure true success potential, notes Azriel. Students might be running a business while taking a full load of classes and balancing personal obligations. In those situations, you need to be adept at organizing and prioritizing to help manage school and business commitments.

Matt Lauzon, 21, found that his grades actually improved as his business got more successful. A student at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Lauzon and his partner, Jason Reuben, 21, started Paragon Lake, an online retailer of diamonds and custom jewelry during their junior year--and Lauzon saw his GPA jump from 2.8 to 3.8. " Freshman and sophomore years, I looked at a balance sheet or income statement, and it didn't make much sense to me," says Lauzon. "Now I'm making them for my business." Set to graduate next May, the pair hopes to see their revenue rise from a projected $350,000 for this year to $3 million in 2007.

So, student entrepreneurs should consider digging into the classwork--not as a way to earn an A, but as a wise investment. "I wouldn't worry about the grade," says Bill Guerrero, a professor at Purchase College, State University of New York, in Purchase, New York. "I would worry about understanding the [entrepreneurial] lifestyle and the risks to help avoid some pitfalls that most entrepreneurs go through. It doesn't guarantee them success as entrepreneurs, but it will certainly help them alleviate some of the common mistakes."

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This article was originally published in the December 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Real Smart.

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