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The Changing Path to Entrepreneurship: A Look at Alternatives to Business School

The Changing Path to Entrepreneurship: A Look at Alternatives to Business SchoolLike formal business plans, entrepreneurs are increasingly doing away with business degrees too.

Business school is general,” says Anna Urman, director of the Small Business Development Center at the Community Business Partnership, a resource center for entrepreneurs in Springfield, Va. “Often people go to understand how to manage a large enterprise, which is an entirely different undertaking than starting a micro-business from the ground-up.”

For those skills, programs such as Stanford’s D.School and the eclectic curriculum at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine are increasingly picking up steam among would-be entrepreneurs. People see these alternative approaches as key to achieving the background experience necessary to launch a startup. In many cases, they might be right.

Sure, the traditional path — that is, B-School — ends with an MBA. But, as Urman notes, especially in today’s fast-paced economic environment, opting for a program that broadens the curriculum with interdisciplinary studies, engineering or design is quickly becoming a popular vehicle for starting up.

What’s more, the costs of the fusion programs tend to ring in on the cheaper side. Nontraditional programs often require less time in the classroom, which can translate into smaller tuition bills. And because many of these programs incorporate online readings and resources, textbook bills may also be smaller, too.

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One of the most buzzed-about programs is the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, otherwise known as the D.School. Especially in its 10-week Launchpad course, the curriculum at the D.School is less about hard-core business and more about “design-think”– that is, a new take on engineering that revolves around observing people to solve problems before they’re even recognized.

“It’s all about experimentation and rapid, low-resolution prototyping of ideas,’” says Perry Klebahn, associate professor and director of executive education at the school. “We don’t validate an idea with a business plan before we take it out. Instead, our approach is, ‘take it out, if it’s worth it, let’s validate it,’” says Klebahn who also founded the Atlas Snow-Shoe Co, a snowshoe maker in Seattle.

Other options blend in similar disciplines. This fall, for instance, Johns Hopkins’ Carey Business School and the Maryland Institute College of Art will launch a new program in design leadership. Up the I-95, Philadelphia University recently rolled out a 16-month strategic design executive program dubbed “the M.B.A. for hybrid thinkers.”

Then, of course, there’s the forward-thinking College of the Atlantic in Maine. Here, where every undergraduate (and graduate) student receives a degree in human ecology, the entrepreneurship program focuses on ideas for sustainable businesses, and even incorporates a hatchery.

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Jay Friedlander, the institution’s Sharpe-McNally chair of green and socially responsible business, says this broadens the curriculum in mission-critical fashion. “In traditional business school, nobody ever talks about the impact of business on the world,” he says. “By looking at things from different perspectives, you’re going to see new ways of generating value.”

It’s easy to see the benefits of these programs: broader education, reality-based and experiential learning. But does participating in them vs. going the traditional route hurt you?

For starters, eschewing the traditional approach to B-School might rob you of the opportunity to learn key fundamental skills, such as writing a business plan or plotting out financials. Then, of course, there’s the lack of hardware. Without participating in an MBA program, you aren’t going to earn that MBA, which could prove useful down the road.

Dan Von Kohorn, founder and president of the Chestnut Hill, Mass.-based investment manager Apt Capital, notes that entrepreneurs who decide against traditional B-School programs may miss out on an often lucrative component of the experience: the Network. B-schoolers generally note that a key benefit to their degree is the people they meet at school.

Related: Could Faculty Entrepreneurs Drive Innovation?

Still, Von Kohorn, a serial entrepreneur, notes that building a network through some of these non-traditional programs is certainly possible. As for the accounting, legal, marketing and other domain lessons to be learned, he says, “I think those come pretty quickly on the job.”

Interestingly, some entrepreneurship academics suggest that the nontraditional programs will have a transformative effect on traditional ones. On that note, Klebahn, the D.School professor, says Stanford’s business school curriculum has already incorporated aspects of design-think methodology. Meanwhile, other B-school programs have become more focused — catering to niches from church management to information systems and hospitality.

Ultimately, though, some suggest the changing face of business education is irrelevant — so long as entrepreneurs think differently from the beginning.

“If [you are] a tried and true entrepreneur — and not a wannabe– then [you] will be non-traditional from the start,” says Erin Owen, a career coach in Philadelphia. “Entrepreneurship is a relentless inner drive to do things better than or different from the norm, so a true entrepreneur is a rebel, a black sheep, one who either doesn’t care about the box or doesn’t even see the box.”

Would you consider taking one of these alternative routes to entrepreneurship? Tell us why or why not in the comments section below.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor in Healdsburg, Calif. He is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur, and has covered startups and entrepreneurship for The New York Times, TIME and CIO. He also covers a variety of other topics, including travel, parenting, education and -- seriously -- gambling. He can be found on his personal website, Whalehead.com.

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