The debate over the value of higher education for aspiring entrepreneurs rages. But as opposing experts (and a small army of writers) feud over the issue here in the United States, across the pond several top universities are eliminating the underlying logic of the argument by creating programs to help budding business owners get their start-up dreams off the ground--while they get their degrees.
"The top-tier universities all seem to be waking up," said Jason Dainter, a Leeds University graduate who co-founded eco-friendly online marketplace EthicalCommunity.com. "There was this old-school mentality that you either go to university or you become an entrepreneur. You hear a lot of the Mark Zuckerberg kind of story--dropped out of college, did something amazing, and took over the world--but I think universities are realizing now that there has to be a bridge between academia and the hands-on, practical, let's-get-it-done kind of attitude. It's changing."
Dainter is himself an excellent example of this shift in progress. He met his co-founder Liam Patterson when he returned to his alma mater to give a talk about a previous Web design business he had started. Patterson, who was at Leeds on an "Enterprise Scholarship," which awards funding to students who found a business while completing their degree, was in the audience. They exchanged business cards, later deciding to join forces.
After pairing up, the two co-founders leveraged university resources every step of the way. They tapped into "a big marketing database" that helped Dainter locate reports and statistics, which otherwise could have costed them thousands of dollars.
"After I left university, I was begging students to have access to it because you just can't afford that stuff as a start-up," recalls Dainter.
The university was also instrumental in helping the fledgling company find its first investor, Robert Barnes of Alchemy Partners. It did so by setting up meetings and opening doors that would normally be closed to a pair of college kids with a business plan.
"I went to meeting rooms at the university that I didn't even know existed," says Dainter. "You realize that behind the university there are lots of very influential, wealthy business people."
Given all the help Ethical Community received, Dainter doesn't see the appeal of dropping out. But that's not just because of the formal support from the university. The availability of a lot of time and a bit of money at that stage of life helps too.
"The common misconception is you can do all that entrepreneurial stuff later, focus on your degree right now. But I think that's changing because of the Internet, and because barriers to entry are getting lower. Students are realizing, actually this is the best time in my life because I've got some cash. I have a student loan coming in, so I don't have to worry about where my next check is coming from [student loans work differently in Britain--they're paid back as a percentage of future earnings once a certain income threshold is reached and are generally taken directly from paychecks like a tax, producing far less repayment anxiety]. For me, university was probably the only time in my life I had some actual spare time," he says.
The networking possibilities are also rich, according to Dainter: "I've had three co-founders to date, and they've all been through Leeds University. It's like a targeted network of quite intelligent people who are on the same wavelength as you. It's founder dating at its finest."
Drop out? With support like that, why would you?