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Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught? Or Only Lived?

Boston's Emerson College announced the launch of The Emerson Accelerator, a two-year, extracurricular program providing funding and space for students to launch businesses. Here's what you can learn from it.

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Boston's Emerson College recently announced the launch of The Emerson Accelerator, a two-year, extracurricular program scheduled to launch next fall. The program will provide $6,000 in total seed funding per semester, to be distributed among participating startup teams. (There will most likely be three startup teams per semester, but that could change, depending on the quality and quantity of the applicants.)

Each team will also get professional space to operate and in-person coaching from experienced entrepreneurs and industry leaders. Students can apply now (deadline is May 1). The school is still finalizing a few details of the program, including which of several possible on-campus spaces it will provide for the startups. Emerson has not yet announced the names of the participating entrepreneurs and industry leaders.  

An Overwhelming Student Response

So far, student response has been "overwhelming," says Stanley Miller, an adjunct professor of management, finance and accounting who's overseeing the program. Miller expected a favorable reaction, but says he's been "constantly replying" to email questions since Emerson made its announcement.

Some of the questions have broached the collaborative realities of startup life. For example, one student studying abroad asked Miller if he could still participate in the accelerator program, teaming with someone who attends nearby MIT. The answer? "To be determined," says Miller.

The question, however, is interesting on several levels. On the one hand, startup life often requires the collaboration of dispersed, virtual teams. On the other hand, the program is intended to help Emerson students learn about entrpreneurship; allowing students at other schools to participate, even if they are named as the official teammates of Emerson students, could open a Pandora's box. 

Takeaways for Today's Entrepreneurs

There are plenty of takeaways here not only for aspiring company builders, but also for entrepreneurs or CEOs who are nowhere near Emerson College--or nowhere near student age.

For example, the five framing questions on the accerator application can help anyone trying to evaluate a business model. Those questions are:

  • How does your business satisfy an unmet need?
  • Why has nobody before you done this?
  • If they have, how are you doing it differently?
  • How are you going to grow? How do you measure growth?
  • How do you measure success? Profit? Passion? Impact? All of the above?

Any founder or executive can benefit from regularly testing her value proposition against these questions.  

If you're at the helm of a mature business, chances are your own culture could benefit from an infusion of the excitement that's always swirling around startups.

Constant Contact, the $285-million maker of marketing software, recently shared with Inc its plans to open a 30,000-square-foot incubator-like space for local startups. The reason? Constant Contact believes that working with the startups can help its branding, talent acquisition, and retention. If those are areas you'd like to enhance in your own organization, then chances are you, too, can find a way to emulate parts of what both Constant Contact and Emerson are aiming to build.

What's New, Why Now, Why it Matters

Emerson President Lee Pelton has worked on college campuses since 1981. He's worked at Harvard, Colgate, Dartmouth, and Willamette. And in all that time, he's never seen such widespread entrepreneurial fervor among an undergraduate population as he sees today. 

"This culture, this hunger for entrepreneurship cuts across all sectors of higher education," he says. "Many students are taking a leave of absence to start their own businesses or develop their products."

Pelton believes a jolt of entrepreneurial ethos--specifically, the pursuit of big-picture ideas, even in the face of high failure rates--can only be a good thing for the generally play-it-safe culture of academic communities. "The young entrepreneur is the hero of the 21st century to these students," he says. "My job is to support their dreams.

"And they may fail, but they understand and I understand that the road to success is paved with failure. And that is okay. And that is counter to college and university culture, which is by and large conservative, safe, and risk-averse."

Credit to the Graduates

Both Pelton and Miller credit the birth of the accelerator to two recent Emerson graduates who've launched their own businesses: Jake Bailey, CEO and cofounder of an app called Recommenu, and Tripp Clemens, a founding partner of Windy Films, which specializes in stories of social impact. 

Both Bailey and Tripp--while fans of Emerson's current entrepreneurial offerings--still wished that their school days had included more of the real-world experience of business-building. "At Emerson I learned a lot from the faculty about technology and collaboration," says Tripp. "Emerson taught me about film, but I needed to learn about the market."

Pelton had met Bailey and Tripp while they were students. Recognizing from their experiences that an accelerator program could fill gaps for student-entrepreneurs, Pelton asked Bailey and Tripp to design one.

One month later--in October, 2013--they presented Pelton with a proposal. Pelton loved it. He loved it so much, that he then asked them to pitch the board of trusteees. "Some board members were so impressed, they wrote checks on the spot," says Pelton.

And so the accelerator was born--a new home for American startups, and the students who dream of them. 




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