Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

Making a Choice

The explosion of entrepreneurial instruction has unquestionably made the selection of a school tougher for students struggling to become entrepreneurs through education. The basic question they're asking is: "Who's got the best program for me?"

Students overwhelmingly state that they start the selection process by looking at two key criteria. First, they want to enroll in a college or university that has a great reputation. Once they know which level of schools they can get into, then they want an entrepreneurship program that meets their specific interests. At the first stage of the screening process, a school's reputation is either national or regional--and entrepreneurship programs typically fall into one of three categories: Comprehensive programs, Entrepreneurship Emphasis programs and Limited Curriculum programs.

The first type of entrepreneurship offering is the Comprehensive program, which has the widest variety of resources. These programs typically have a large contingent of experienced faculty whose teaching and research expertise specifically relates to entrepreneurship. There are often a dozen or more separate course titles covering everything from entrepreneurship, new venture development, and small-firm finance to change and innovation, venture capital, and technology transfer. Schools with Comprehensive programs have a center dedicated to entrepreneurial studies, one or more specialty research institutes, a business plan competition, mentoring programs, and possibly an incubator to help launch new ventures.

A second type of program is the Entrepreneurship Emphasis program. These usually sport a smaller entrepreneurship faculty and a lower number of course offerings. Students might still be able to emphasize entrepreneurship within a business or economics major. There may or may not be a center or research institute, an incubator, or other business outreach initiatives, and if there are, these are typically smaller not only in size but also in scope.

The third program type is called a Limited Curriculum program, which typically has only a few faculty (sometimes just one or two) teaching a limited number of courses. Students generally do not get a major or emphasis in entrepreneurship studies, but rather take a class or two as part of another major. The program is often designed for undergraduates (but may include some grad students) and provides limited resources to support student ventures, business financing or other initiatives. The best of these programs use innovative courses to integrate entrepreneurial perspectives across the curriculum, and they often have a broad, interdisciplinary approach to venture development, management and strategy.

A Tale of Two Students
Erin Defossé and Aruni Gunasegaram met on the first day of MBA school at the University of Texas at Austin and quickly discovered they were kindred spirits. Both had left the workplace to return to college so they could learn the skills needed to start their own businesses. Before long, they had come up with an idea worth pursuing--a business that sold technology allowing vending machine owners to remotely sense when their machines were low on inventory. They began writing a business plan and decided to enter it in the University of Texas at Austin's Moot Corp. Competition, said to be the country's oldest and most lucrative academic business plan competition.

Their plan for IsoChron Data Corp. won the 1997 contest, earning them a year's free tenancy in a start-up incubator and seed capital to get underway. The Moot Corp. win led to introductions to investors, who financed the company's emergence from the incubator as a going concern. Today, IsoChron has 14 employees and co-founder Defossé as chief technology officer, while Gunasegaram--who later became his wife--left the company to pursue other interests.

Defossé, 32, a former NASA engineer, chose the University of Texas at Austin for its combination of a top-ranked entrepreneurship program and an equally excellent reputation in information technology, the field in which he hoped to start a business. Defossé says he was also drawn to the emphasis on instruction based on practical experience, using adjunct professors who are experienced entrepreneurs. There's no doubt in his mind that the tales of the real world he learned in the program propelled IsoChron beyond earlier failures. "My partner and I got surrounded by people who knew about this," he says, "and that was the difference."

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This article was originally published in the April 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?.

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