Academia aiding entrepreneurs
May 1, 2005
Entrepreneurship. It's a word as heavy with potential responsibility and rewards as it is difficult to spell.
Whether it's full degree programs, a smattering of specialized courses, sprinkling entrepreneur elements into "regular" business courses, business plan writing competitions, dabbling in venture funds or talks with self-made business leaders in the community, they have spent the past few years offering more tools to help students build careers as entrepreneurs.
"This is going on not only nationwide, but it's an international kind of phenomenon," said Gaylen Chandler, head of the department of management and human resources at Utah State University. "There is simply a lot more entrepreneur instruction going on now than there used to be."
The approaches are varied. The University of Utah, for one, offers a full entrepreneur degree program, having started an entrepreneurship program about five years ago.
"Most major educational institutions for a long time were there basically to teach theory and teach concepts and prep you to go into the corporate environment and have some basic tools and learn how to fit into the corporate world," said Leonard Black, director of the Utah Entrepreneur Center at the U.
"When you're an entrepreneur, you need to have working knowledge of a whole broad spectrum of accounting, finance, marketing, sales, management - you need all of it. You don't need so much theory of it. You need to have what I call workable skills."
Those include knowing the right places to find the right information to validate business ideas as true opportunities in the marketplace, writing a business plan, finding start-up money and continuing through an exit strategy, he said. "And that mentality is left out of basic education, in my opinion," he said.
"The whole concept behind that is not that you necessarily start a business, but I teach about the concept of accumulation of wealth. You promote the concept that what your young people need to do is start a business, get it up and running, make it successful, then step away from that and do it again so that they continue to really build the economy. It's an interesting concept to sell."
The Center for Entrepreneurship, part of Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management, has been at it for several years. It advances entrepreneurship in several ways, offering educational programs, sponsoring a business plan competition, supplying lectures from successful entrepreneurs and entrepreneur mentors.
Utah State offers course sequences at the undergraduate and MBA levels, making the undergraduate management program more entrepreneur-focused, Chandler said.
"If you look at a business curriculum 20 years ago, all the examples and case studies and models being used to make business decisions were handled in a large-business context. You'd teach them how to do a management information system and glean information from a large organization to make business decisions. But now even large companies want to be more agile," he said.
"When a student starts in the entrepreneur curriculum, the very first issue is what is the business opportunity and how to recognize and evaluate it, to know whether you have a viable opportunity or not. That never would have been dealt with in the older curriculum because it just assumed you would work for a company that already had a developed business model."
James Fenton, dean of the School of Business at Utah Valley State College, said the curriculum for entrepreneur students "is simply more narrow" than a business student would get in a more-generic education.
"Where we feel the future lies in terms of business education, a healthy portion is with the entrepreneur, the student who wants to go out and start a business," Fenton said.
The school's entrepreneurship degree program is several years old, and augmenting that is potential equity funding through a trust. The school benefits financially later if the start-up is successful and funds are paid back into the trust. A student start-up also can benefit from incubator services, private-sector mentoring and other activities.
Weber State University offers a senior-level course in entrepreneurship, has teams competing at business-plan-writing competitions and has formed the Weber Entrepreneur Association, whose 25 members make connections to the community and investor groups. Weber also offers entrepreneur scholarships and a certification program in entrepreneurship.
"Business schools across the country recognize the need for classes to support entrepreneurship because that is just driving the economy," said Tony Allred, associate professor of marketing and business administration at Weber.
"The majority of jobs are created by small companies, less than 100 employees and some much less. It's not the big companies bur rather the small companies and entrepreneurs driving the economy and employment, and that's been true for a long time."
Allred said studies indicate that anywhere from 1.5 million to 3.5 million businesses are started annually, and that perhaps as much as 10 percent of the adult population is trying to start some type of business.
"Clearly, it's on the minds of people, and I believe there are 600-plus schools offering some course in entrepreneurship," he said.
But Allred said he's not sure a full degree program is necessary, because solid business education can serve as the foundation for success in entrepreneurship.
"That's why I'm not sure exactly how many classes you have to have in entrepreneurship to help students become successful entrepreneurs," he said. "At any accredited business program in the country, students are preparing themselves for entrepreneurship as they learn the principles of finance, management and marketing. How you give them a platform to identify an opportunity and then take the risk to involve themselves in an opportunity - as opposed to a career - that's maybe as important a thing as adding another class or two more classes."
Aric Krause, dean of the Gore School of Business at Westminster College, is more blunt. With input from several advisory boards with business executives from throughout the world, the school developed a program that helps entrepreneurs-in-waiting "deal with finance, marketing and leadership simultaneously," Krause said.
"So, we have courses where they're learning about accounting, but as it relates to production of the good, relates to what the market wants and needs. And we think that by teaching in that manner that we will get a better result than simply making up new courses that are called 'Entrepreneurship.' Teaching more textbook courses on entrepreneurship is not going to do it, in our opinion."
Krause said offering complete degree programs in entrepreneurship is not a mistake, "but it comes down to what makes a good entrepreneur, and we really think that doesn't come from a couple of stand-alone courses but actual integration and understanding of business for what it is in its bigger context."
What works for the individual students varies, he said. "But I think we'll find that our ability to create and lead global firms in Utah will be a function of students being able to understand the really big picture, to accomplish degrees personalized to them and augment their sets of skills and programs that will help students see what the rest of the world is doing and make the best business decisions possible. For each individual student, that can come in different ways."
In some ways, the colleges and universities are simply responding to their own markets, or potential students. The past 15 to 20 years has seen a spate of corporate downsizing, and the people left without work have turned to starting up their own businesses, Chandler said.
Several of the experts agreed that even if a wannabe entrepreneur ends up working for a large company, their entrepreneurship training will be beneficial. Krause said that, indeed, many companies are seeking "intrapreneurs."
"They want people who will bring fresh approaches to an established corporation," he said. "I've talked to many businesses worldwide that feel stymied by their inability to innovate within hierarchical structures. They want people willing to try new things, to champion new ideas and products."
All the academic leaders expect more educational options for aspiring entrepreneurs in the future. The U. implements one or two initiatives annually, and Black said that will continue to attract more students.
Many expect students in various disciplines to take advantage of entrepreneurship offerings.
"For example, a student in the School of Education maybe wants to entertain the idea of starting a day-care center," Fenton said. "Or maybe a nurse in the nursing program wants to entertain the idea of starting a home-health-care system. In terms of entrepreneurship, that's generalizable across disciplines."
Technology already is facilitating those aspirations. Chandler said it's now possible for a company with 12 employees in Logan to have a niche technology product marketed worldwide "to the 14 companies in the world that use that technology."
"Technology makes it easier for people who want to get into business and be self-employed," Fenton said. "It doesn't take a lot of capital to start up an Internet-based business."
Black said young people nowadays simply do not see work and lifestyle - and the balance between the two - the way students did years ago. And technology allows them more opportunity to work anywhere they want, including at home, springboarding a business from their involvement and education in performing arts, engineering, graphic arts, biotechnology or other majors or interests.
"Because of computer technology and communications technology and Web technology out there, there is just a lot of exciting things that can be done without building a great, big corporation," he said.
"Yeah, there will still be people who will be the Bill Gateses of the world, but there are students in all of the colleges whose dream is not just to be able to do what they do, but own a business doing it. It's just a mentality that seems to be more prevalent than it used to be."