Start Me Up!

Entrepreneurial Centers

Another underutilized business resource is the entrepreneurial center. As companies continue to shed their human cargo, more than 300 colleges have started teaching some variation of an entrepreneurial curriculum that includes courses, lectures, seminars, workshops, and degree and outreach programs.

The University of Southern California boasts a comprehensive entrepreneurial program, implemented in 1971, as does The Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson College. Harvard University, The Wharton School and dozens of others throughout the United States also offer entrepreneurial programs.

Here's a ready-made opportunity to hook up with others who are seeking help. Most entrepreneurs take courses or work with teachers or students to strengthen their business practices. Entrepreneurial centers also present fertile networking opportunities for start-up entrepreneurs.

Dennis Ackerman, director of the Bank of America Entrepreneurial Center at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, says entrepreneurial centers provide more in-depth advice than SBDCs and tend to cater to entrepreneurs with more business experience. Explains Wendell Dunn, a professor and executive director of the Batten Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Darden School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, "We tend to be a research center and think tank, addressing issues such as how new businesses [originate] and how wealth is created."

In short, entrepreneurial centers often offer an explanation of the theories behind business practices, whereas SBDCs focus on the nuts-and-bolts techniques for starting a business from scratch. "SBDCs provide business advice to entrepreneurs within the community, whereas entrepreneurial centers are academically linked to a college or university and provide a curriculum for students with an outreach program for entrepreneurs in the community," says Dunn.

While many SBDCs are associated with colleges, most operate independently from the school and the services available to entrepreneurs are standardized. At entrepreneurial centers, however, services available to entrepreneurs vary. At some schools, they're provided by faculty; at others, they're provided by graduate business students.

One thing most entrepreneurial centers are equipped to do is steer entrepreneurs to the best resources throughout their state. Ackerman also points out that most entrepreneurial centers specialize in key industries. Old Dominion's entrepreneurial center, for example, specializes in technology. If you have a hot new software product or your goal is to be an Internet service provider or systems integrator, Old Dominion is the place to get cutting-edge advice. But if you're opening a small restaurant featuring gourmet vegetarian cuisine, you'd be wasting your time going there.

There are also entrepreneurial centers, like the Nebraska Center For Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, that provide both specialized and general information primarily to students and secondly to non-student clients.

Most services initially provided by entrepreneurial centers are free, while many schools, like Old Dominion, require entrepreneurs to pay a small fee once their company is profitable or after it reaches a certain equity, debt or sales goal.

Since all entrepreneurial centers are not created equal, it's critical you find out whether each provides the help you need via a meeting with its director.

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This article was originally published in the June 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Start Me Up!.

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