Candida Brush is the first to admit that she's living in a different world from most business school professors. She serves as chair of the entrepreneurship division and director of the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., which is consistently ranked as the top business school for entrepreneurship. In that role, she's at the center of a college that established the first entrepreneurship program more than 30 years ago, requires entrepreneurship classes for all students and even has physics professors teaching some of those classes.
And all of that experience has taught Brush one thing: Most of what we think we know about entrepreneurship is wrong.
"The image prevalent in society and the media is that an entrepreneur is a person who stands in the shower and gets a great idea, drops out of college and starts Microsoft," she says. "That's not the guts of entrepreneurship. Most successful businesses are founded by teams, including people of all races, colors and genders. Our idea of how entrepreneurship works needs to change."
And that means changing the way it is taught. For starters, she believes the focus on business plans has to go.
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"Students come in here saying they want to write a business plan, but that's the last thing they need to do," she explains. "The only way to get to a point where you have a truly entrepreneurial idea is to use a creative approach. Observe. Reflect. Do mini-experiments, as opposed to sitting in the library reading case studies."
Instead, Babson asks students to do three feasibility studies before pursuing an idea. That means thinking about competitive advantages, talking to potential customers and doing a lot of brainstorming before even thinking about a business plan. "And for us, even that plan is about the process, not creating a 50-page action plan," Brush says. "If you get married to a bad idea, a business plan means nothing."
The approach seems to be working. Brush, who focuses her academic research primarily on women's entrepreneurship, has helped several female students move into the startup phase and has helped several others refine their ideas in the Hatchery, an incubation space that's part of the Babson Venture Accelerator.
Seeing businesses take flight is gratifying, Brush says, but she points out that smart entrepreneurs still need advice and guidance once B-school ends. "Mentoring can take a lot of different forms. It can be joining an advisory board or becoming an angel investor. A lot of it is asking questions and listening. Sometimes it's providing the right advice," she explains. "It all comes back to the network piece."
Working for Women
In 1996, when the dot-com bubble was inflating and venture capital was falling like rain, Candida Brush and four colleagues noticed a disheartening trend: Only a fraction of those billions of dollars was coming to women. They formed The Diana Project to research the gender divide. Brush estimates that in today's much smaller VC market, women-owned businesses still receive only 10 to 12 percent of the funding. The Diana Project has now morphed into a forum for researchers to discuss the ways women entrepreneurs grow their ventures and find new ways to help them gain the respect--and funding--they're looking for.
Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.