Hitting The Books

How to get your degree and start your company at the same time

Entrepreneurship is fast becoming the hottest ticket on campus. The field has grown explosively in the past few years, with successful business owners and alumni pouring $250 million into the creation of chaired positions in entrepreneurship and related fields between 1999 and 2003. Some 2,100 schools now offer coursework in entrepreneurship, up from just 380 in 1990, says the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. And nearly 500 of them offer entrepreneurship concentrations or degrees.

Students are proving just as enthusiastic as the schools. About 400,000 undergraduate and graduate students took at least one entrepreneurship course in the past academic year, estimates Paul Magelli, senior scholar in residence at the Kauffman Foundation, compared with possibly 24,000 10 years ago. At the University of Arizona Eller School of Management, only one in four of the juniors who applies for a major in entrepreneurship gets into the program. And at the Wharton School, the most popular double major among MBAs for three of the last four years has been finance and entrepreneurship.

But even the best program can't sprinkle entrepreneurial pixie dust on students, suddenly transforming them into a battalion of Michael Dells. Instead, the goals of these programs are considerably more prosaic: to offer instruction in the basic block-and-tackle skills of business, and to equip students with some insight into the world of new ventures.

That insight, on most campuses, comes from a mix of academics and experienced entrepreneurs. Because entrepreneurship is a relatively new field, few of the academics teaching in these programs have degrees in entrepreneurship. Instead, they hold PhDs in subjects such as management or finance. Most schools also rely somewhat on adjuncts or lecturers -- entrepreneurs or former entrepreneurs who teach from their own experience. But the Acton School of Business in Austin, Tex., which teaches only entrepreneurship, goes a step further, requiring that every teacher must be a practicing entrepreneur. But most agree a mix is best. "If you have mainly entrepreneurs [teaching], you have the chance that too many war stories are being told," cautions Steven S. Rogers, director of the Larry and Carol Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice at Northwestern University's Kellogg School and a professor in entrepreneurial finance. "And with too many academics, you have the possibility that no one knows the realities of entrepreneurship."

Students who focus on entrepreneurship as part of an undergraduate or MBA degree typically take a handful of classes that may include how to write a business plan, the ins and outs of financing a startup, how to manage a fast-growing enterprise, and negotiating an acquisition. Others may stick to more traditional majors or concentrations and just take a few entrepreneurship classes on the side. Those who don't want to commit to a full-time degree can brush up with some short-term intensive study, such as a four-week crash course offered by Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. The cost for the full-time programs, like most college and graduate degrees, is breathtaking: Anywhere from $84,000 to $136,000 on the undergraduate level and from $70,000 to $132,000 for an MBA. Tuck's intensive program runs $8,200 for room, meals, tuition, and books.

Which type of program might be right for you depends not just on your own goals as an entrepreneur but on where you are in your education, the teaching style you believe you'll respond to best, and how much time you're willing to devote to being on a campus and in a classroom.

And what if, after plenty of research, nothing seems to fit? Well, academic studies in entrepreneurship aren't for everyone. Last year, Jennifer Iannolo thought she'd go back to school for an MBA in entrepreneurship and use that time to develop her next company. But she was rejected by Oxford University -- a great stroke of luck, she now says. The 34-year-old has her rejection letter framed in her office. The day after it arrived, she dove into work for the Gilded Fork, her new online media startup. She's hardly pining for more time on campus. Mostly, she says, she's using "what I learned by being in the trenches."

If you're itching to launch a business soon -- maybe you picture yourself a future serial entrepreneur -- there are specialized programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels geared toward helping students get a business off the ground. Schools such as Babson College, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Arizona are among the best-known. At Babson, all first-year undergrads are put in 30-person teams, each of which makes use of a $3,000 grant to take the first steps toward starting a business. Most of these companies shut down at the end of the course, but students get to learn what it's like to actually start and run something. The next year, students are eligible for an intense program that helps them put together a detailed business plan, but only about 60% who apply get in. At Oklahoma, all undergrads and MBAs in entrepreneurship take a series of classes aimed at helping them start a new venture upon graduating.

If you think you could benefit from working for a larger company before going out on your own, a more traditional undergraduate business degree or an MBA with an emphasis in entrepreneurship may be the way to go. Those degrees are also attractive to big employers looking for executives to drive internal innovation.

The most common approach to teaching, and the one used by schools such as Wharton, Harvard Business School, Kellogg, and the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, is the case study method. Students pore over real business stories, putting themselves into the shoes of the owner. The schools' goal is to turn out first-rate managers with a solid understanding of entrepreneurial thinking and strategies.

Even those students who are eager to get their hands dirty and start a business say they have learned valuable lessons from this sort of teaching. One of the most important: the ability to evaluate a situation in an analytic, dispassionate way. In 2003, the summer before his senior year at the University of Oklahoma, Danny Ferguson started Homestead Community Development, a construction and development business, with his father. The engineering major quickly realized he needed some business training, so he went back to the University of Oklahoma for his MBA and concentrated in entrepreneurship. Ferguson says the case study classes taught him how to think through challenges he now faces every day.

Right now, for example, Ferguson's three-person, $1.1 million business is developing a 45-acre tract of land for residential construction. But the estimate of the cost of readying the land for homebuilding was much higher than Ferguson had hoped. In his pre-MBA days, he says, he would have sought deals on materials and other piecemeal ways to cut his bill. This time, he began rethinking how the entire project had been laid out. Now, Ferguson, 24, thinks he will be able to redesign the project to make the numbers work. "What is really useful is being able to step back and see the whole picture," he says.

Another plus of being in a full-time entrepreneurship program is the chance to surround yourself with others who are just as focused. Nathaniel Turner, 20, has started 13 businesses in the past 10 years, including a snake-selling business that's still in operation. But his most recent, the online take-out food ordering service EatNow.com, was started and sold to an Internet company from his dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, thanks to some help he got there. Alum Josh Kopelman, founder of used book site Half.com, had volunteered some time at Penn to guide budding entrepreneurs. He helped Turner figure out how to add new restaurant listings to EatNow fast. He also helped him land a summer internship at San Francisco-based VideoEgg, which helps Web sites include video. "Education is important, and you need those basic fundamentals," Turner says. "But I'm also meeting people who will be great to know personally and professionally."

If you already have a passion for a particular field, whether it's computer science or biochemistry or even art, it might make the most sense to focus your education there and simply supplement it with a few business and entrepreneurship classes. Adnan Aziz, 23, took only two entrepreneurship classes while getting his bioengineering and political science degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. His science expertise helped him to see possibilities in edible film strips, like those breath-freshening tapes that dissolve on your tongue. Aziz' company, First Flavor, has filed for patents to use that technology for food samples and is pitching the idea to food and beverage companies.

Taking this approach is slowly getting easier. The Kauffman Foundation has been giving grants to help establish entrepreneurship programs and initiatives in engineering schools, medical schools, and even liberal arts colleges. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, has established a minor in entrepreneurship for students in its College of Arts and Sciences. Even without Kauffman prodding, plenty of schools are expanding the reach of entrepreneurship education. At the University of California at Berkeley, a two-year-old program teaches marketing and other business skills to engineering undergrads. "The demand has been incredible," says A. Richard Newton, dean of Berkeley's College of Engineering. "Almost every class has been 50% over-enrolled."

Lisa Salzer, a 23-year-old art history and studio arts major, took no entrepreneurship classes while she was at Dartmouth College. Instead, the summer after graduation she enrolled in the Tuck School of Business' intensive four-week program. That gave her the basics she needed, including the ins and outs of using a spreadsheet. Now her New York company, Lulu Frost, takes antique hardware and other vintage items and transforms them into unique jewelry. Last year, Lulu Frost took in more than $100,000. "While I need the business skills, the most important thing is to know your craft well," says Salzer. "My art history background gave me that real aesthetic sense."

Of course, sometimes the neat lessons of the classroom don't apply in the real world. While studying engineering and computer science at Cornell University, Ryan Hudson, now 26, took a class on writing business plans. One of the cardinal rules was to avoid businesses with low barriers to entry. The company he launched in 2004, YouShoot, flies in the face of that, as it rents digital cameras to guests to use at weddings and other special events. Hudson knows that anyone could create a similar service relatively easily. He's now trying to give his operation advantages over potential new entrants, including a deal with memory card provider Lexar. Still, he's glad he didn't let the rules of Business Plans 101 stand in his way. "The only way you can make it all come together is by doing it," says Hudson -- a sentiment many more experienced entrepreneurs would surely agree with.

By Amy Barrett

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