Aaron Hall was an economics student at Northwestern back in the late 1990s when he took a venture business class as an elective. Hall and his father often pitched each other business ideas, the way other families might talk football, so he figured the course was an easy credit. As part of a class project, he developed a business plan for a struggling solar energy firm owned by a family friend. He got top marks, from both his teacher and the company owner, who actually asked Hall to put the plan to work in 2001. Today, Borrego Solar Systems is on track to hit $60 million in revenue and Hall, now 28, sits at the helm.
It's tough to argue with that kind of academia-meets-real-world success. Yet, even Hall admits that class projects alone can only teach you so much about business.
"School is all about learning how to learn and how to work with people," Hall says. "That's important, but there's also a lot to be learned by running a business." Among other shortcomings, Hall says he left school with no experience pitching to prospective clients, relying solely on the company's owner to show him the ropes.
Henry Mintzberg, the author of Managers Not MBAs, and other critics have long argued that most business programs are too narrowly focused on analysis and technique over experience and insight. It's a complaint many of the nation's top business schools have acknowledged in recent years. From the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, where Hall attended, to MIT's Sloan School of Management and Stanford's Graduate School of Business, among others, universities have begun redrawing curriculums to better prepare students with the kind of hands-on entrepreneurial experience critics say they often lack after graduation.
Among other skills and resources, this includes a greater focus on managerial problem-solving, product development, financing, business plan competitions, and on-campus start-up incubators that are already sprouting countless real-world companies across the nation.
According to the Kauffman Foundation, there are now more than 2,000 colleges and universities offering at least one course in entrepreneurship, compared to just 300 in the mid-1980s. Over the same period, the number of college departments dedicated solely to entrepreneurship has doubled to two dozen and counting, the Kansas City, Mo.-based entrepreneurship group says.
It's this kind of shift that helped launch Meraki, a low-cost Wi-Fi system developed by John Bicket and Sanjit Biswas, two MIT graduate students. Before moving to San Francisco in 2006 -- and landing million-dollar funding from Google and Sequoia Capital -- they spent four years in school developing the networking technology behind their product. That included test driving the system on campus and throughout Cambridge, Mass., the whole time supported by a faculty experts and mentors.
"We spent a lot of time trying to make the network user-friendly," says Biswas, who along with Bicket, put his degree on hold when the company took off.
It's the same story for Aaron Levie, 23, and Dylan Smith, 22, at Box.net, an online file sharing application they developed while taking undergraduate degrees in business and computer science. The idea came out of a class project on marketing for media firms.
"I realized it was a very underdeveloped market," Levie says. "After doing some research, I found there really needed to be a simple storage system to put all your files online." With guidance from their teachers, they raised start-up capital -- including $350,000 in angel funding from billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban -- and moved to the Bay area.
Likewise, Tina Wells says her college tuition paid for itself. Buzz Marketing Group, her Voorhees, N.J.-based youth marketing firm, started out as an independent project at Hood College. "Being a college kid, I had all these resources around me," says Wells, 28, who now lists SonyBMG among her top clients and has since taken another program at Wharton.
Of course, these new entrepreneurial curriculums aren't just fostering high-tech media start-ups. Omar Soliman of College Hunks Hauling Junk, a Tampa, Fla.-based firm that helps homeowners get rid of heavyweight clutter, credits his undergrad business program at the University of Miami for helping launch his $2.5 million company.
"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for school," Soliman says.
Not only did college provide the academic groundwork for launching a well-managed business, he says, it also proved to be a great recruiting tool.
"We have a lot or young college students coming into the company," Soliman says. "They don't necessarily want to haul junk, but they're learning how to become managers. Many of them are now running a franchise."