There was a time when being in a rock band was the ultimate in campus cool. Now it seems that once again being in a startup gives you instant cool, particularly for the business school class of '09.
There is a perfect entrepreneurial storm brewing. Just as the famously independent Millennial Generation enters business school, the world economy goes to hell in a handbasket. The former blue chips of Wall Street can no longer offer long-term job security and generous end-of-year bonuses, giving this new generation of MBA graduates the impetus to pursue their own business ownership dreams.
If business schools are smart, they will rush to embrace this entrepreneurial generation and give them the tools they need to realize those dreams. The time is certainly ripe. Though customers and funding may be harder to find in a recession, there is more talent now available, while rent and other operating costs are down. And startups in a downturn are hardly new. Cisco (CSCO), Apple (AAPL), Gap (GPS), and Genentech (DNA) were all created during recessions.
Given that enough entrepreneurs are more motivated by solving an important problem than by financial gain, business schools owe it to themselves to let the entrepreneurs in the MBA classroom teach the finance majors a thing or two about short-term profit vs. long-term gain.
"The entrepreneur is the only true hero in society," claims Johan Staen Von Holstein, founder of the global business incubator IQUBE. Speaking at the World Entrepreneurship Forum, the first international think tank dedicated to entrepreneurs and their role in society, he and others reminded policymakers that "every problem there is will eventually be solved by an entrepreneur."
What can business schools do to unleash this generation's inner entrepreneur? They can take a cue from the Tuck School of Business (Tuck MBA Profile) at Dartmouth, which is hosting a new business plan competition, with a $50,000 prize, in an effort to inspire new entrepreneurial ideas and create jobs on both a local and national level. Or they can follow the lead of schools like the Haas School of Business (Haas MBA Profile) at the University of California, Berkeley. The school's Lester Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation provides students with the expertise to pursue their ideas, and improve their negotiating hand with venture capitalists. It's a great example of how to encourage innovation in both new and established companies, and we need more such schools offering innovative solutions to the entrepreneurial challenge.
While Harvard Business School (Harvard MBA Profile) and others wrestle with their conscience about their role in the financial meltdown, business schools around the world have a wonderful opportunity to unleash a spectacular wave of entrepreneurial thinking. But can entrepreneurship be taught?
Babson College (Babson MBA Profile) and EMLYON (EMLYON MBA Profile) certainly think so. The two schools, both acknowledged entrepreneurship specialists that combined have launched hundreds of successful companies, have joined forces with Zhejiang University in China to educate the next generation of international entrepreneurs with the launch of a Global Entrepreneurship Program. The school reports strong demand for the new master's program, not only from those looking to start their own business, but also from large companies that are trying to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit within their organizations.
To hear EMLYON Dean Patrice Houdayer tell it, the key is not to teach entrepreneurship as an academic subject, but as the hard-earned lessons passed on by the generations of entrepreneurs who came before—their accumulated "tried and tested knowledge and experience." Innate optimism only gets you so far. It's learning to avoid the mistakes that tripped up previous entrepreneurs that will guarantee success.
With their accumulated store of knowledge about how to launch a business, and proximity to the profitable ideas in technology and the sciences, business schools should be the ideal platform to nurture a new generation of entrepreneurs. And this generation—highly social, confident, and networked—seems ready for the challenge. Certainly the world needs this new generation of business school entrepreneurs—now more than ever before. If the economy is going to recover, their optimism and their new ideas will be a big part of the reason.