If you're a business owner with most of your growth ahead of you, one place you may want to go to finance your expansion--as well as to learn how to manage it--is back to school. At least that's the advice of Mark Rice, director of the Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York.

Rice, whose staid title belies his contribution to making Rensselaer one of the powerhouse entrepreneurship schools in the country, has seen the same scenario happen over and over again. Young growth companies tap into the activity surrounding a university and find themselves awash in the kinds of resources--capital included--that help turn great ideas into great companies.

"Creating an environment where companies can thrive requires an important underlying fabric," Rice says. This fabric consists of an active angel network, a source of technology or new business ideas, a large number of entrepreneurs, a base of professionals--such as lawyers, bankers, accountants and marketing consultants--who understand entrepreneurial companies and are prepared to assist them, and a state or local government that maintains a pro-business stance.

How to Pick a Study Program

If you need help and feel that a university environment might be right for you, your first task is to find the institution that best fits your needs. Experts like Rice suggest that not every educational institution is capable of delivering the assistance you need. In particular, they say you should focus your energy on working with a university that has an entrepreneurship program. The different mind-sets at different schools are subtle but important. At most universities, for instance, professors prepare students to join a company as an employee after graduation. At schools with entrepreneurship programs, you'll find professors and students preparing to build businesses.

Even schools with fledgling entrepreneurship programs are worth checking out. Bob Tosterud, head of the Council of Entrepreneurship Chairs, a group of business schools with endowed entrepreneurship professorships, says entrepreneurship is a hot topic in universities these days.

"People who are hired by schools to cultivate entrepreneurship chairs are often highly qualified and have lots of contacts in business and academia," says Tosterud. "I recommend calling any university nearby, and if they have even a rudimentary entrepreneurship program, schedule an appointment to talk to the person running it."

Michael Marvin, a former RPI employee who ran the school's manufacturing center and started a business with great help from the school's resources, also advises that if you want to approach a university for funding, keep in mind that they offer many ports of entry. "Go in as many doors as possible," he says, "but don't stay anywhere too long if it doesn't look productive." For instance, a school like RPI, which has an active entrepreneurship program, might have affiliate programs in which off-campus companies can get involved. Other options include:

  • Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs): SBDCs frequently offer a variety of seminars on topics from marketing to finance. Although usually not offered for college credit, these courses can help small-business owners develop their skills.
  • Alumni outreach programs: Successful graduates of universities often offer to help current students, recent graduates and even unaffiliated businesses in the university's community by sharing their information, expertise and, sometimes, financial help.
  • Campus networking events: You might learn a lot just by hanging out and talking to people at business mixers, management lectures and the like.
  • Business incubators: Many universities are setting up business incubators, frequently to help commercialize university research.
  • Manufacturing assistance centers: Numerous colleges and universities have government-assisted centers with the mandate of helping local factories improve their competitiveness.
  • Entrepreneurial resource centers: Miscellaneous resources that could help entrepreneurs range from using university libraries to taking part in research projects to recruiting business students to work as interns.
  • Continuing education programs: Continuing education classes in business are often full of working students who can add their wealth of real-world experience to what the lecturer has to offer.
  • Night schools: They may not have the cachet of regular daytime courses, but night classes are often taught by the same professors and cover the same material, for the same credit.
  • Community colleges: The nation's thousands of community colleges provide low-cost, convenient educational opportunities for entrepreneurs who need basic instruction in topics such as information technology, accounting, marketing and management.
  • Executive MBA programs: If you want to get your driver's license for the business fast lane, two to six years in an executive MBA program, usually meeting only at night and on weekends, can get you there.