In 1970, a national survey of business schools found just 16 courses offered in entrepreneurship. Since then, entrepreneurial education has taken off like the Internet craze. Karl Vesper, University of Washington management professor and entrepreneurship expert, did the groundbreaking 1970 study that, when repeated in 1997, uncovered more than 400 schools offering at least one course in entrepreneurship, and more than 50 schools with four or more courses.
"Money, mostly" is the reason so many schools have added entrepreneurship to their offerings, says Vesper, who explains that colleges want to tap into donations from wealthy alumni. But the visibility of entrepreneurs in business in the past three decades has also played a role. As headlines blared about the innovation and personal wealth that went hand-in-hand with entrepreneurs and start-up ventures, especially in the technology sector, the public became increasingly fascinated with start-up businesses and the risk-taking mind-set that defines the entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurial education arguably started at Harvard University in 1947 with a single course. In the mid-1980s, entrepreneurship came into its own, and programs sprang up offering entrepreneurship tracks and even majors for MBA and undergraduate students. By the turn of the millennium, students could major or minor in entrepreneurship--even get a doctorate and join the professors researching and teaching entrepreneurial management and finance. Along with entrepreneurial degree programs, schools hold student business plan competitions, sponsor research centers and host venture capital forums. Today, more than three dozen academic research journals are dedicated to topics ranging from family businesses, franchising and women entrepreneurs to corporate venturing, incubators and inner-city business development.
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The business students who filled the multiplying classrooms weren't all planning to start businesses of their own. Some just wanted to pad their resumes with courses that would convince potential employers they possess the entrepreneurial mind-set. But many, like Iraklis Grous, a 19-year-old sophomore at Babson College in Babson Park, Massachusetts, specifically wanted to learn how to become entrepreneurs.
Grous chose Babson College in particular because of a required freshman course giving a team of 30 students $3,000 to start a business. His team's venture, an inflatable-furniture marketing business called AirChairs, generated $1,000 in profits and confirmed Grous' desire to be an entrepreneur. The instruction and environment at Babson "definitely" has whetted his entrepreneurial instincts and understanding, Grous says. In fact, he's already incorporated his first start-up, an adventure travel agency called Sirius Trekking, which he hopes will begin operations this summer. After graduation in 2005, he says, "if the profits from Sirius go well, I'd love to start another company."
Despite the enthusiasm of students like Grous, skeptics still ask: Can entrepreneurship be taught? "It can be taught," asserts Stephen Spinelli, director of Babson's Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship. "But I'm not sure it can always be learned. There are processes to entrepreneurship that we teach, but does that create a prescription for entrepreneurship? No. There are millions of variables, and they're too dynamic for us, at least in our present state of understanding, to be able to prescribe success. But can we teach students enough to push up the odds of success? I think so."
Well-chosen extracurricular activities can push those odds up still further, argues Alvin Rohrs, CEO of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), a Springfield, Missouri, organization that has enlisted business students at more than 1,400 schools around the globe to teach members of their local communities to start businesses. "It works on two levels," says Rohrs. "One of our premises is that if you're asked to teach something, you're going to learn it better." Student teachers learn organization, teambuilding, communication and leadership. And the informal entrepreneurship students in the communities also benefit. "SIFE teams in Ghana and Mexico [have taken] entire villages and turned them from subsistence farmers into business owners," explains Rohrs.