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Learning Curve

A class consulting project can be a great way to learn entrepreneurship.

Traditional wisdom holds that college is theory time, while real-world learning comes later. Traditional wisdom would be wrong, though, if you're talking about today's entrepreneurship courses, which emphasize projects with real-life components. That's because students today are learning entrepreneurship not only from books and professors, but also from in-class projects where they consult for outside businesses.

It's a win-win for both students and business owners, says Michael P. Verchot, director of the Business and Economic Development Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Very often in academic settings, you take distinct classes--accounting, marketing, finance--but you don't see how all that fits together," he says. "Working as a consultant with a small business . . . just weaves everything together."

The Business and Economic Development Program, for example, gives students the chance to consult for local small businesses, from restaurants and auto repair shops to professional services firms. "It takes away the mystery of what being an entrepreneur is," says Verchot. "Students walk away saying, 'Look at how hard running a business really is.'"

Connecting what's taught in class to the experiences of real entrepreneurs is exactly what David Wiggs, a 2001 MBA graduate of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, learned from his on-campus consulting experiences. He recalls one particular consulting project involving an entrepreneur who owned a Nashville recording studio. The entrepreneur, whose profits were being devoured by upstart home-recording studios, came to Vanderbilt's Owen School of Management for student input on how to market the specialty church background music his company sells. Much to the entrepreneur's satisfaction, the students came up with an effective marketing plan.

"When you have your dominant business model basically shattered [like this entrepreneur did], you've got to remain pro-active in knowing your industry and your capability so you can adapt," says Wiggs, now 30.

That kind of knowledge helped Wiggs launch Earth to Air Systems Inc., a manufacturer of geothermal heating and cooling systems, soon after graduation. Wiggs, who says company revenue is nearing the seven-figure range, is such a fan of entrepreneurial learning that he's now on the other side of the spectrum. With plans to grow his Franklin, Tennessee, business, he's looking to students at Vanderbilt for fresh perspectives on technology innovation, marketing and more.

If your school lacks this type of formal relationship with businesses, Verchot suggests contacting the business club at your school; perhaps the club can take on a service project for a local entrepreneur. You might also have a Small Business Development Center either on campus or in your community. "Students can work with the SBDC director to find a business and complete a consulting project," says Verchot. Ideally, you'll glean firsthand entrepreneurial knowledge before you even become an entrepreneur.


Read more about the kinds of help you can get from colleges and universities by clicking here.

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This article was originally published in the September 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Learning Curve.

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