How do you turn an idea into action? That’s what Florian Hoffman began asking himself around 2005, when he felt all the research he'd been doing on foreign policy at Oxford University hadn't brought him any closer to solving real problems.
"What I saw while studying and guest teaching is that there's still this old idea of getting people ready for certain jobs," he tells Inc. "These young people see [advanced education] as an investment and then get out of school and lack the skills necessary to orient themselves."
Of course, Hoffman isn't the first academic to question the value of higher learning. Here in the U.S., debates over the merits of M.B.A.'s versus real-life experience have raged on since the recession, when a lot of well-educated millennials found themselves without work.
As Cliff Oxford, a three-time Inc. 500 CEO and former IT manager at UPS, put it, the usefulness of an M.B.A. peaked in the '90s, when entrepreneurs had three years to stay ahead of the competition. But with technology advancing faster than ever, as he wrote in the The New York Times, "the traditional M.B.A. and the classroom have been left in the dust."
A New Business School
Hoffman felt budding business owners needed a viable alternative to academia. With Swiss entrepreneur Bobby Dekeyser, he launched D&F Academy for international entrepreneurs to gain practical, hands-on experience.
Over the next few years, Dekeyser and Hoffman worked nearly nonstop to develop and implement pilot educational programs in the Philippines, Germany, and Turkey, combining their wisdom from hard-won experience with that of social activists, fellow professors, entrepreneurs, and even famed primatologist Jane Goodall. By June 2013, D&F Academy had morphed into the DO School, with facilities in Hamburg, Germany, and Brooklyn, New York.
Although Hoffman admits he and Dekeyser "really invested in the [education] methods, not the buildings," the program they conceived for The DO School has the potential to put b-school to shame. The program lasts only a year, and is entirely free to "fellows" aged 18 to 28. What's more, the majority of the learning takes place outside of a classroom and in one-on-one settings with teachers.
The program is split in two segments, Incubation and Implementation. The Incubation phase helps fellows flesh out their startup ideas as they study branding, market research, and other business concepts. During this time, fellows live together in New York or Hamburg and cover the cost of their travel and living expenses. Once the 10 weeks are up, they return home and complete the program online via a platform that resembles a massive open online course. This is the Implementation phase, where Hoffman says fellows use the theories they've learned to get their venture off the ground.
"Basically every theoretical lesson we teach is then put into practice right away," says Katherin Kirschenman, the DO School's head of strategy and development. "We're trying to fill the gap in higher education." Eventually, she says, the school hopes to build an international network of social entrepreneurs who support one another. Currently, fellows from previous sessions serve as mentors during the Implementation phase.
In return for footing the fellows' tuition, companies like H&M tap into the brainpower of the school's fellows to improve their business. In the case of the Swedish clothing company, Kirschenman says, that means having fellows design an "entirely green retail store," a challenge that begins in late April. Fellows also are working on the "Good to Go" campaign for the Brooklyn Roasting Company, launching April 15, which aims to cut down on waste through a coffee cup-sharing program modeled after city bike-sharing programs. If the system works, the campaign could roll out to all five of New York City's boroughs.
Despite the real-world applications of what the fellows are building, Hoffman emphasizes the DO School's program is strictly for entrepreneurs who are just starting out. "We didn't want to give them money because we wanted them to figure it out," the founder says of the school's lack of funding programs or Y-Combinator-style demo days. "We don't really see it as an incubator in that sense. But we do have a huge focus on how you raise funds."
Can The DO School Succeed?
Mark Kantrowitz, the senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, an online resource for planning and paying for college, says the mentoring and practical experience the DO School provides are indeed useful. But "to some extent, you get what you pay for," he says. "There's value here, clearly, because [the fellows are] getting some training for free that will help them in their future ventures, but this is not really an alternative to a full-scale M.B.A."
The school can only provide its fellows with so much information. "With a full-scale M.B.A., you'll get detailed information on how to fund a company, how to determine things like wages, negotiating contracts--a lot of details you won't necessarily get in 10 weeks," Kantrowitz says. "They're learning some practical skills and gaining some knowledge, and it enhances the value of a prospective employee to an employer, but because this [concept] is new, only time will tell whether it adds value."
For now at least, the school functions as a meeting ground for socially focused entrepreneurs from all walks of life. One student named Mohamed Salia from Sierra Leone, for example, wants to help fellow Africans affected by mining. His venture will be a startup with both nonprofit and for-profit components.
"I saw an advert in an email and knew this was the time for me," Salia says of the DO School. "I have a bachelor's degree in art, but I never knew how to put [my idea] into reality. After the war, things like this weren't being taught in universities. But now, I think I am an asset to my country."
The DO School also charges companies to attend innovation workshops with experts and plans to license its online education component to other institutions sometime in the next year.
"Given that there is demand from companies to work with us on these challenges and that we've been approached by a couple organizations and city governments interested in bringing the DO School to other countries, this is a very exciting opportunity for us," Hoffman says. "Basically, that would mean that we only need to scale the offline phase and then everybody can join a centralized online learning program. It's scalable and that makes it really interesting."