It has happened to more than one student in business school at the University of California at Los Angeles. She settles into her chair for the job interview. She has studied the company and is ready to offer her opinion on how it can grow. Instead, the recruiter asks her a much simpler question: Have you taken Cockrum?
Cockrum is William M. Cockrum, an adjunct professor who has been teaching a course in entrepreneurial finance at UCLA's John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management for the past 12 years. He is perhaps the best teacher of entrepreneurship in the country. And when alumni return to recruit at the school, whether they're with a high-tech startup or a Wall Street giant, they often want to know how job candidates did in his notoriously tough class.
It's a testament to Cockrum's teaching ability--and to the newly central place the study of entrepreneurship occupies at top U.S. B-schools. As Corporate America has cut back, hundreds of laid-off employees have returned to campus, looking to learn how to start their own businesses. Younger students, meanwhile, no longer expect to spend entire careers with one company. And with a continuing healthy market for initial public offerings, they have pushed for more classes on startups. "If you're going to be insecure, you may as well be your own boss," says popular Washington University professor Russell Roberts, who began teaching the subject this year.
After a first year filled with basic finance, marketing, and management classes, many students see a small-business course in the second year as a capstone that shows them how those abstract disciplines actually work together in running an enterprise. In a more flexible workplace, that cross-disciplinary approach is helpful even for those who still plan to climb the corporate ladder.
The result has been a swift transformation of the subject from a scorned hinterland of the academy to one of the hottest areas in management education. Deans across the country now list entrepreneurship, along with technology and international business, among their highest priorities. "Even if you're in a big company, the world in which you operate has fundamentally changed," says Douglas M. Dunn, the new dean at Carnegie Mellon University, who just ended a 26-year career at AT&T. Now, he's adding two weeks on entrepreneurship to his school's core curriculum. "It's critical that our students have a chance to explore this."
Since 1993, more than one-third of the country's top B-schools--including Northwestern University's J.J. Kellogg School of Management, the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, and the Columbia University Business School--have created concentrations in entrepreneurship. Over the same period, Harvard University has added two tenure-track faculty slots in the area. Babson College in Babson Park, Mass.--long regarded as having one of the best programs in this area--has introduced five new electives. This fall, Rice University's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Administration in Houston became one of the first schools to require all students to take a semester-long class in entrepreneurship.
GOOD INFLUENCE. On the front lines of this expansion are a dozen professors who, according to BUSINESS WEEK's survey of 4,830 recent B-school graduates, stand out as the finest in the field. At the end of a 36-question survey, the grads were asked to name the two best teachers they had studied with and the two best electives they had taken. Combining the results from those two questions yielded the list of the 12 classroom all-stars (table).
They are a particularly influential group because MBAs who start their own businesses often lack the mentors they could have found at large companies. Instead, many stay in contact with professors for years after they've graduated, using them as advisers while their startups grow. Marlies Carruth has kept up with University of Chicago Graduate School of Business professor James E. Schrager since she got her MBA from the school in 1985. Having taken his class in entrepreneurship, she turned to him for advice when she left banking for advertising in the mid-1980s--and then really relied on him when she struck out on her own to found a small film-production company in 1995. She was on the phone with him just this month getting advice on how to market her latest production. "He communicated to us that there was this magic in taking the risk to fulfill a vision you have," Carruth says about a class she took more than a decade ago.
In a sense, the 12 are a homogeneous group: They are all men. But they are not your typical group of academics. Sure, there are traditional types, such as Steven N. Kaplan, who did his PhD in economics at Harvard and rose quickly through the ranks as a finance professor at the University of Chicago, only to take a recent interest in small business. But there is also his colleague, Schrager, who hits campus only once or twice a week and lives 90 miles from Chicago in South Bend, Ind., where he runs a consulting group for medical-device makers.
And there is Cockrum, who doesn't have a doctorate and spent 25 years as an investment banker before starting to teach at UCLA in 1984. He still works part-time as a consultant. On the two measures used to determine the best teachers, Cockrum breaks the curve. Fifty-six percent of all surveyed students from UCLA's class of 1996 said he was one of the best two teachers they had there, while 52% of the grads said his course, Financing the Emerging Enterprise, was one of the best electives they had taken. That's particularly astonishing considering that only about 67% of the class took the course.
It is not surprising, however, to those who know Cockrum. The subject of entrepreneurship, he says, both requires rigor and permits broad-mindedness. A 1961 MBA from Harvard, Cockrum is a strong advocate of the school's famed case-study method. He calls on students without warning, and if a member of a study group is unprepared to answer, the grades of all students in the group suffer. He is gruff but caring, students say, and often tells them: "I'm teaching you this stuff so you can be clipping coupons on the beach one day."
SERIOUS MONEY. Cockrum teaches about 10 hours a week each semester--an unthinkable workload for many academics. And he did well enough in 1984 when Merrill Lynch & Co. bought out A.G. Becker, the investment bank where he had been vice-chairman, that he donates his salary to the school and has endowed a chair in entrepreneurial finance. "If students have these concepts," he says, "it's useful to them for the rest of their lives."
Indeed, it's worth noting that four of the teachers on this list specialize in finance. As entrepreneurial studies have become more popular, they've also become more serious. Students today are less likely to spend a semester listening to war stories from moguls describing how they made it big. They're more likely to learn how distinct fields--such as law or finance--relate to startups.
Some schools even give students real money to play with. At Wisconsin, a recent gift of $700,000 will allow MBAs to act as venture capitalists, sifting through business plans and funding those they find worthy. And this fall, Washington University's John M. Olin School of Business started a program called "the hatchery" that sends teams of students off to consult with entrepreneurs at the start of their ventures.
It all marks a newfound respectability for entrepreneurship teaching. For a long time, critics--including many entrepreneurs--have doubted whether the topic can be taught at all. Entrepreneurship is a matter of inspiration and guts, they say. Academics, meanwhile, have seen it as an interdisciplinary hodgepodge that does not yield serious research. As a result, there are few good textbooks, and junior faculty members are usually better off publishing in more traditional areas if they hope to get tenure. "Businesspeople who are skeptical about teaching people to be entrepreneurs have a good point," says Edward E. Williams, the Rice professor who will teach that school's core class in the subject this spring. "What I can do is teach people the tools of the trade."
Even when business executives and academics agree the subject should be taught, they may disagree on who should teach it. When Donald Berens, a delicatessen-meat magnate, gave money to the Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management for a chair in entrepreneurial studies in 1980, he told administrators he didn't care if the person who filled it had completed seventh grade. The faculty was thinking more along the lines of someone with a PhD. After a dispute, the two sides agreed on David J. BenDaniel, who ranks ninth on the BUSINESS WEEK list. BenDaniel had worked in venture capital but also had a doctorate in engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I was, frankly, a compromise candidate," he says.
BenDaniel is now cited as one of the school's best teachers, and he spends a full week at the end of each semester listening to students present their final project, a business plan. Why does it take him so long? Two out of every three MBAs who graduate from Cornell's Johnson School of Management take his class. Not bad for a compromise candidate in a former B-school backwater.