From the February 2000 issue of Startups

As an entrepreneur, Ken Proudfoot knows what it takes to launch a business from home. Between psychological forces like isolation and motivation, to traditional business issues like product development and marketing, the home office can be a stifling place to work.

So Proudfoot helped create the Larry Friedman International Center for Entrepreneurship at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. The school serves as a business incubator, creative lab and headquarters for new businesses started by the university's students and alumni--many of which are started from home, says Proudfoot, the program's director.

"Our Center offers homebased entrepreneurs a complementary home-away-from-home place to further develop their businesses," he says. "It's a dynamic environment with other entrepreneurs creating and building their enterprises as well. This creates additional synergy that can lead to improvements and enhancements to your business model, marketing strategy and product design."

Johnson & Wales' entrepreneurship program is one of approximately 1,200 such programs in two- and four-year colleges and universities nationwide, says George Solomon, an adjunct professor of management and entrepreneurship at George Washington University School of Business and Public Management. That's up from about 90 in 1979. The current list includes Harvard; University of Southern California; George Washington University; and Babson College, which Solomon says is considered by many as the mecca of entrepreneurship programs.

Community colleges and two-year universities have targeted the at-home business owner with programs that fit their own philosophy. "They're smaller, the faculty is made up of practitioners and there's less bureaucracy," he says. "The key is the understanding of the small business at the college level. It's not just that they're shrinking down a big business program."

At Johnson & Wales, the students are a mix of traditional students and older enrollees who have returned to the classroom to learn new business strategies and styles, he says. It makes for a dynamic educational mix. "[Older students] have the business and would like the degree," says Proudfoot, who also publishes This Week in Entrepreneurship, a weekly electronic newsletter on the center's programs and activities. "They've been through business, so they can tell fascinating stories about the horrible customer or how the bank turned them down for a loan. They have wonderful stories for the younger students."

The Johnson & Wales center, which opened in 1998 with a $500,000 grant from a local entrepreneur, now has 100 students working toward two- and four-year degrees. In an office-style classroom, each student is afforded a desk, a chair, a filing cabinet and portable walls so they can style their own workspace to foster creativity and individual thinking, Proudfoot says. Tools also include an Internet connection, a computer, a copier and a fax machine.

One student formed a business plan to manufacture industrial oven mitts within federal guidelines. Another created a collection agency based within a law firm to tap the clout of the legal office and increased collections at a lower cost to his customers.

"What we do is called 'ideation,' " says Proudfoot. "The students bring ideas to the table, and we help them refine their plans."