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Young Guns

A new generation of college students makes entrepreneurship its business.
October 1, 1996
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/13396

The bed isn't made. The coffee maker balances precariously on the bookshelf next to a well-worn copy of The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. The only signs of life are a personal computer running a contact management program and an answering machine doing its job. Welcome to the modern-day college dorm room.

This is college, but it's a far cry from "Animal House." Instead of ditching class to swill beer, a new breed of college students is more likely to skip school to attend breakfast meetings with venture capital groups or powwow with potential business partners. College campuses are becoming veritable hothouses for entrepreneurship as formalized academic programs yield a new generation of street-smart,
business-savvy entrepreneurs.

Jennifer Kushell is part of this generation. She's ambitious, driven and definitely young. The 23-year-old president of her own company, The Young Entrepreneurs Network, the recent college graduate nurtured her inborn entrepreneurial tendencies while still attending Boston Uni-versity. Now, having started four small businesses, all while still in school, Kushell has a head start in the real world. Her business publishes an online directory of entrepreneurs from 40 countries--all between the ages of 10 and 35. She's also started a quarterly newsletter that explores issues young entrepreneurs face.

Guiding Forces

There is a host of reasons entrepreneurs are getting younger and younger. For one thing, downsizing and widespread layoffs have created a job market that's low on security, to put it mildly. For young people, many of whom have seen their parents and other relatives become casualties of changing economic times, the options upon graduation aren't quite what they used to be.

For savvy students, however, that isn't necessarily bad. Kushell, for one, believes "the opportunities for younger people are now more [plentiful] than ever before. These people can start their own businesses and graduate as the president of a company."

Administrators at universities that offer entrepreneurship programs say they've witnessed a change in college students in the last few years. Bill Bygrave, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, says the change in students' attitudes is "profound."

"Young people are recognizing that they've got to be more responsible for their own destiny," Bygrave says. "For many of them, that means starting their own company."

Young people also have more entrepreneurial role models than their parents did. America's ideas of success have changed as much as the economy has. Fifty years ago, judges, lawyers, doctors and the like were held up as our highest role models. These days, though, if you were to ask a bunch of 11-year-olds who their hero is, they'd likely say Bill Gates.

Finally, another reason more young people are striking out on their own is that some of the nation's most noted universities are offering entrepreneurship programs that prepare students for the rigors of the lifestyle. Now, instead of simply learning by trial and error, young entrepreneurs can immerse themselves in practical classes that put them ahead of the game in running small businesses.

Staying After School

In 1970, only 16 universities nationwide offered entrepreneurship courses. According to Karl Vesper, a professor of business administration at the University of Washington, today there are more than 400 such schools. Among the most highly regarded are Babson; Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; Harvard Business School in Boston; New York University in New York City; University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles; and the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia. Not only are there more schools offering entrepreneurship programs today, but the in-stitutions that pioneered entrepreneurship education have fine-tuned and beefed up their programs, even adding graduate degrees to the mix.

As far as reputation is concerned, Babson College wins, hands down. It was ranked number one for its undergraduate entrepreneurship program in 1995 and 1996 and for its graduate program in 1995 by U.S. News & World Report. "Most people would agree we have the most complete program in the country," says Bygrave. The undergraduate and graduate entrepreneurship programs were completely revamped three years ago to give students practical information as well as ideas and theories. As part of the MBA program, faculty members team-teach courses so students get two points of view in one class. Babson also touts its mentor program, in which teams of four students work with local corporations on special projects.

Babson's undergraduate entrepreneurship program exposes students to a well-rounded mix of information systems, management and entrepreneurial skills. Each class of ap-proximately 42 students is given $3,000 with which to start a business. During the first semester, students decide on a concept and write a formal business plan; during the second semester, they launch and nurture the company. Businesses have ranged from dorm-room food-service companies to campus CD clubs. "So far, no one's gone bankrupt," says Bygrave, "but if they do, we'll put them through a simulated bankruptcy."

The faculty members at Babson's Center for Entrepreneurial Studies are serious about small business. For one thing, most of them have run entrepreneurial businesses themselves and now want to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. Babson graduate Steve Spinelli, for instance, returned to the school to teach after helping found oil- change franchisor Jiffy Lube and establishing a network of 47 franchises. Bygrave himself started two small businesses before joining the faculty at Babson.

Bouncing their ideas off Babson's professors and students helped Michael Healey and Robert Lofblad launch their Needham, Massachusetts, company, PC-Build Upgrade Centers Inc., before they graduated with MBAs in 1992. The laboratory atmosphere at Babson taught the partners a lot about problem-solving--and gave them a safe place to work out the kinks. "It's a lot easier to defend potential fatal flaws in your business with a professor than to actually be sitting behind the desk when that situation comes up and threatens your business," says Healey, the company's president. "Graduate school makes you [consider potential] problems ahead of time and forces you to work through different scenarios."

Healey says the practical nature of Babson's graduate program also helped inoculate them against failure in the real world. "One of the reasons I went back to school was because I knew I wanted to start my own business, but I lacked marketing skills; I didn't know what it took to launch a business or how to look at and assess opportunities," says Healey. "I had the drive, but I couldn't take that and turn it into a business." That's where Babson came in. Now, five and a half years later, Healey and Lofblad's $4.5 million company has three locations and shows no signs of slowing down.

Theirs is not the only apr├Ęs-graduation success story. The Entrepreneur Program at USC hosts an annual networking day where graduates compete with each other to present their stories to their fellow alumni. In March, more than 110 alums competed for 10 spots. The chosen businesses ranged from a coffeehouse and an auto towing business to several Internet companies.

Entrepreneur Program director Tom O'Malia says more and more students are showing interest in USC's undergraduate and graduate entrepreneurship disciplines. Why? "They're being realistic," says O'Malia. "Our full-time MBA students are looking to join emerging firms. They know they don't want to end up working for a large, bureaucratic company. And our nighttime graduate students know what they don't want to do. The cubicle [they sit in during the day] is a little too tight and stifling."

Of course, USC's Entrepreneur Program is no walk in the park. Completing the courses in the face of the typical college distractions is almost as challenging as, well, running a small business. "The average student spends 300 to 400 hours writing a business plan in the second semester of their undergraduate year," O'Malia says. "We're competing against the beach and the beer, and to get that many hours out of somebody is pretty incredible."

Part of the allure is USC's faculty. Like most instructors in entrepreneurship programs, those at USC have run and sold their own businesses, so they know whereof they speak. O'Malia describes USC's seven entrepreneurs-turned-professors as having the "battle scars and torn pants" to prove their mettle.

Luckily, the kind of students drawn to entrepreneurial programs makes teaching them that much easier, according to Allan Bailey, executive director of San Diego State University's (SDSU) Entrepreneurial Management Center. "There are always arguments about whether entrepreneurs are born or made, and although there's a lot to be said [on both sides], a curriculum like this helps [young entrepreneurs] develop tools and skills to complement their own personal attributes and drives," Bailey says. "If we can help them avoid some mistakes, that will improve the potential success rates of those who gravitate into the entrepreneurial venue."

SDSU's program is heavy on the MBA side and light on the undergraduate side (two classes--Introduction to Entrepreneurship and In-troduction to Writing a Business Plan). But as with other schools' programs, interaction with community businesses is a large part of SDSU's regimen.

The Wave Of The Future?

Although Jennifer Kushell didn't graduate from a formalized undergraduate entrepreneurship program at Boston University, she's a sterling example of the kind of raw ambition that's present in every young entrepreneur. Even though she was influenced by the five small-business go-getters in her immediate family, Kushell's grit has come largely from within. Does she think of herself as a role model? Actually, she's pretty modest. "Any young entrepreneur who pursues their own company while in college and sticks to their guns is a role model," she says.

Entrepreneurship programs have undoubtedly changed the way students approach their careers--and the students themselves have changed the way university faculties structure their academic programs. To illustrate the change in the perception of entrepreneurship as a legitimate academic pursuit, Bygrave recalls that 11 years ago, when he joined Babson's faculty, students typically asked whether it might look bad on their resumes if they took a class in entrepreneurship and then tried to get a position at a big company. "I never get asked that question today," he says.

Bailey agrees that the "E-word" plays a much bigger role in business schools' vocabularies these days. In fact, he believes entrepreneurship is the major that best represents the growing interdisciplinary nature of business. Says Bailey, "In a lot of ways, entrepreneurship is the interdisciplinary business major of the 21st century."

Contact Sources

PC-Build Upgrade Centers Inc., (617) 449-7575, info@pcbuild.com;

The Young Entrepreneurs Network, 376 Boylston St., #304, Boston, MA 02116, (800) 455-4393.