Tune in to just about any address on the economy by President Obama, and you’ll hear these all-American buzzwords: Entrepreneur. Start-up. Small business. Facebook. In the Great Recession, building an idea into a business and creating something from the ground-up is not just symbolic of the American dream—it’s a life-preserver for a weak economy. Small firms (those with 500 employees or less) have generated an impressive 64 percent of the net new jobs over the past 15 years and continue to employ over half of all private sector employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that the Obama administration is working on helping entrepreneurs —legislation like the Small Business Jobs Act and initiatives like Startup America, are working to remove outdated regulations, subsidize start-up loans, lift capital barriers and reduce red tape for the start-up-minded.
But the White House isn’t the only institution focusing on entrepreneurs—a crop of American schools, universities, mentoring programs, and new websites are just itching to train the next generation of Mark Zuckerbergs. But can entrepreneurship actually be taught?
A new study by Massachusetts’ Babson College suggests it can. Professors at the top-ranked entrepreneurship program surveyed nearly 4,000 alumni who graduated between 1985 to 2009 found that taking two or more core entrepreneurship courses positively influenced students’ intentions to launch their own business and the likelihood of them actually doing so—both at graduation and years after. Writing a business plan in college and post-graduate job dissatisfaction also played a role.
“Passion can’t necessarily be taught, but it can certainly be nurtured,” said Kendall Artz, executive director of the entrepreneurship program at Baylor University in Texas. Over the course of the four-year Bachelor of Business degree, or one-year MBA, students take workshop classes where they flesh out their start-up ideas, investigate potential markets and come up with a business plan, and financing, which trains them to approach banks and angel investors. The courses rely heavily on case studies and mentorship. For those who have the desire and gumption to take the entrepreneurial plunge, learning these skills can increase the chance of success. “We focus on helping students to develop the tools and the contacts necessary to help them start a business,” says Artz.
them to be creative—you either are or you aren’t.”
The Babson study also found that more education isn’t necessarily the answer, nor are family ties. Having parents who were entrepreneurs had no significant influence on intentions to jump into the start-up market, and there was no difference between those in undergraduate school and those with MBAs.
For many students, simply surrounding themselves with other potential entrepreneurs can be effective. Following graduation, Zachary Bouzan-Kaloustian, a 2007 graduate of Babson’s undergraduate entrepreneurship program, secured employment at a traditional 9-5 business job in Boston, working towards becoming a manager. But after three years at the company, he decided it wasn’t for him and trading his more traditional corporate job for a business development internship at Four Square in New York City. He says that in addition to his business school training, meeting community entrepreneurs and exposure to start-up case studies at the Babson program gave him confidence to make the career change.
“Knowing that other people have been in the same shoes, have spent months and months and years and years poor helped me learn that it’s not about the money,” Bouzan-Kaloustian said. “It gave me a sense of security to know that I wasn’t in uncharted territory.” He is currently interning at City Pockets, a smart phone app that helps users organize their purchases from deal sites, and is seeking a more permanent position at a consumer-facing start-up. It’s all good experience for his ultimate goal – to launch his own venture.
Nature vs. Nurture
But did Bouzan-Kaloustian get the entrepreneurial spirit in school? Teaching the skill set—the ability to come up with an innovative idea, attract investors, and have the guts and passion to pull it off—is a tall order. Add to that a certain je ne sais quoi, a way innovators have of looking at the market and seeing a need where others don’t. “They can see business opportunities when other people would just move on with their lives,” said Ted Zoller, vice president for entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and associate business professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Amy Cosper, editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur magazine, says that this creativity and gumption are, for the most part, inherent. “It doesn’t ever hurt to get education,” she said. “But when it gets down to whether or not they’re born or taught, it gets a little dicey. It’s like putting someone in a corner and telling them to be creative—you either are or you aren’t.”
Academic programs can help cultivate these skills, and prepare students for the start-up life by teaching them how to work in teams, create a business plan, approach bankers and angel investors, and recognize when to let go of an idea. And since Myles Mace of Harvard Business School taught the first entrepreneurship course in 1947, the number of schools teaching courses has skyrocketed. About 250 entrepreneurship courses were offered in college campuses in the United States in 1995, according to the Kauffman foundation. Today, more than 5,000 are offered in two-year and four-year programs.
is easy. It doesn’t cost you any money.”
Many schools, including the University of Colorado, added specialized courses, such as art entrepreneurship and music entrepreneurship, in the last ten years. Last week, Tennessee launched a complement to Obama’s Startup America, which will include an online hub to connect potential founders with mentors and investors. Stanford University has a free online resource center for entrepreneurs. The Kauffman Foundation, a leading entrepreneurship advocacy organization, recently created its own online curriculum. Plus, hip new sites like Entrepreneurs Unpluggd, launched at the beginning of this year, connect the start-up minded with some of the best and brightest in the industry.
“The goal of education is to help people learn to fail quickly or scale quickly and smoke these things out,” Zoller said. “We’re creating environments where people can test their ideas by thinking about a real market.” And that, according to Bouzan-Kaloustian, is one of the biggest benefits of an entrepreneur-focused education. During his junior year at Babson, his student team (including students from Latin America) came up with a concept for a Maxim-like magazine featuring Latina women—and quickly learned that it wasn’t the most viable venture. “In a classroom, the failure of any business is easy,” Bouzan-Kaloustian said. “It doesn’t cost you any money.”
So do the programs work? The number of small businesses hasn’t boomed in the same way that the number of courses has, but it is growing. From 1992 to 2008, the number of small firms in the U.S. grew by nearly one million, according to the Census.
The bottom line—for those who’ve got the passion, entrepreneurship is not just good for the economy, it’s rewarding—and even trendy. “It’s no longer cool to graduate school and go into a corporate job,” Cosper said. “[Entrepreneurship] is the intersection of pop culture, economics, and business … People want to be in charge of their destiny.”
For more on entrepreneurs from The Fiscal Times:
7 Reasons Why It’s Never Been Easier to Start a Business
When Entrepreneurs Are Too Young to Succeed
Third Time’s a Charm for Two Young Entrepreneurs