Cover Story

Forget Seattle and San Jose. The real entrepreneurial action these days is on college campuses

It's hot. it's cool. it's now. Interest in entrepreneurship is exploding on campus. At universities on the coasts and just about everywhere in between, new and ambitious courses, programs, and centers dedicated to entrepreneurship are popping up. National Public Radio airs segments on it. Even Rolling Stone magazine devotes pages to it.

Harvard Business School, long known as a gateway to corporate America, last October established a beachhead in the nation's entrepreneurial epicenter, California's Silicon Valley. Harvard cut the ribbon on its California Research Center, in Menlo Park, where a dozen of its professors are already involved in study and writing. But it's not just the marquee schools that see all the action. Ball State University, in Muncie, Ind., and Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, are cosponsoring this year, for the first time, a business-plan contest for their undergraduates, with $15,000 in prize money at stake. "I think we're seeing a wave--actually a tidal wave--of entrepreneurial interest and activity that's starting to envelop schools of business around the country," notes Ball State professor of entrepreneurship Donald F. Kuratko.

With the global economy rewarding speed, innovation, and nimbleness as never before, entrepreneurship has become the driving force of American business. Entrepreneurial energy on campus is only escalating the trend.

Never have students had a greater hunger for entrepreneurship, business-school officials report. Relatively unknown 25 years ago, entrepreneurship is now a subject taught at about 400 universities, according to Karl Vesper, a professor of management at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

Among the oft-cited reasons for the entrepreneurial fervor on campus is one that's reducible to two words: Bill Gates. The nerdy Harvard College dropout is a modern-day icon for hundreds of thousands of students who imagine that they can emulate the founder of Microsoft Corp. and get filthy rich doing so.

Alumni dollars are also fueling the entrepreneurial boom on campus. One example: A billboard mogul, Karl Eller, and his wife, Stevie, last year kicked in $10 million to the University of Arizona to endow the Karl Eller Center for the Study of the Private Market Economy, among other things. Other examples abound.

And what, after all, is the value for students in this burst of activity? Is a Harvard M.B.A. student concentrating in entrepreneurship, who must spend about $90,000 for a degree, any closer than anybody else to founding the next Microsoft? The experts disagree. But what's abundantly evident is the intensity surrounding entrepreneurship that's pervading American campuses in the here and now.


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When it comes to supporting entrepreneurship, Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management puts its money where its mouth is. The school will repay student loans of up to $25,000--$5,000 for five years--for M.B.A. graduates who start their own businesses or work, to some degree, in exchange for stock rather than salary at high-growth companies. "We don't want students' debts to stop them from becoming entrepreneurs," says David BenDaniel, Berens Professor of Entrepreneurship. Seventeen graduates have taken advantage of the university's largesse in the two years since the program was instituted.

To purchase more than 1,000 acres of land to grow cranberries, Millennium Cranberry, in Madison, Wis., sought venture-capital financing last spring from a new source in town: university students. They are M.B.A. candidates in the Weinert Applied Ventures Program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who work in teams with local companies and follow up by making financing recommendations to a board of directors. After performing due diligence into the circumstances of Millennium Cranberry, the group invested $50,000 for a favorable equity stake. The money comes from a $750,000 fund recently contributed by entrepreneur Jim Weinert, CEO of Tri Pro Inc., a venture-capital firm in Minneapolis.

Professor Robert Hisrich's teachings in entrepreneurship are in demand not only at Case Western Reserve University but also much farther afield. In 1992, while he was working as a consultant in Moscow, Hisrich bumped into some Russian academics, and discussions with them led him to start a business-and-entrepreneurship-studies program for engineers there. The five-year-old program for 40 students, offered by Zelenograd Business College, in conjunction with Miett University, is now fully subscribed and is recognized by the Russian Ministry of Education. Hisrich teaches a course at the college every year.

Students at Brigham Young University are known for their missionary work, and last spring two of them were in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus spreading the gospel--the gospel according to Adam Smith, that is. The two students and a professor, Kristie Seawright, spent two weeks last May at the Belorussian State Economics University, in Minsk, teaching some 250 students about entrepreneurship and free enterprise. "I think we made them aware that there are opportunities to start your own business over there," says finance major Justin Stratton, 23, one of the two students.

Businesspeople have been chipping in to universities to promote entrepreneurship. Among recent examples:

  • Entrepreneur Gerrald McGinnis, founder of Respironics Inc., last year donated $1.5 million to Carnegie Mellon University's Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration, in his hometown of Pittsburgh. The purpose: to endow adjunct professorships for local entrepreneurs who will bring their real-world experience to students.
  • Arthur M. Blank, founder of the Home Depot Inc., is shelling out $5 million to promote entrepreneurship at his alma mater, Babson College, in Wellesley, Mass. Most of the money will create an endowment for the entrepreneurial-studies program at the new Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship.
  • A $1.5-million gift two years ago from venture capitalist John Pappajohn, who grew up in Mason City, Iowa, helped fund the University of Iowa's recently created John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. Most of the money will allow engineering and health-sciences students to study entrepreneurship alongside business students.

When Jonathan Cohn, 30, enrolled in business school, three years ago, he expected to bury himself in an accounting textbook; it never crossed his mind that he might have to consult an accountant about a real-life problem as part of his homework. But he did. Cohn's assignment: to assist Carol Howell, CEO of Howell Construction Co., the general-contracting company in downtown Kansas City she had founded in 1989.

Cohn was attending the Henry W. Bloch School of Business and Public Administration at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Since 1995 the school has encouraged all its M.B.A. candidates to do unpaid fieldwork as consultants for local companies. But two years ago it added a twist for executive-M.B.A. students like Cohn. They are now assigned to do fieldwork with inner-city companies, mostly small businesses.

That wrinkle stems from the university's participation in the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, which Professor Michael Porter of Harvard Business School founded in 1994 "to make a material change in the economic prospects of our core inner cities," as he put it recently. Now 12 business schools have joined Porter's program, and he expects dozens more.

As a consequence, many more regular and executive-M.B.A. students are plunging into entrepreneurship firsthand. And Cohn has become an advocate of the inner city as a business venue. His family's 75-year-old property-management company, Yarco Co., had seriously considered moving its headquarters to the suburb of Overland Park but instead relocated within the inner-city neighborhood it's called home for more than 30 years. -- Mike Hofman, with research assistance provided by Shane McLaughlin

The University of Iowa sponsors a free summer camp for budding entrepreneurs--and "budding" is definitely the word. Each July the university's Summer Institute for the EntrePrep introduces 25 high school juniors to entrepreneurship. When the students return home from the campus, in Iowa City, they spend a year in a small-business internship and earn a $1,000 college scholarship. The year-old program, which attracts three to four applicants for every spot, will be expanded to eight other Iowa campuses by 1999.

So his students can rub elbows with entrepreneurs, Washington University professor Russell Roberts founded the Hatchery in 1996. Students write business plans, for themselves as well as for outside entrepreneurs, with the help of mentors drafted from the business community. An advisory board of investors and entrepreneurs screens the ideas and evaluates the written plans. In one case, the payoff exceeded all expectations: several members of the board so liked senior Andrew Rubin's proposed start-up, Ice King, that they invested $50,000 in his plan to open a string of upscale snow-cone stands in shopping malls.

1946: Harvard Business School, in Cambridge, Mass., offers a course in entrepreneurship called Management of New Enterprises, considered by many to be the first of its kind at any U.S. university.

1963: The Journal of Small Business Management, one of the first U.S. academic journals devoted to entrepreneurship, is published in Washington, D.C.

1963: Georgia State University, in Atlanta, creates the country's first endowed professorship in entrepreneurial studies, the Ramsey Chair of Private Enterprise.

1971: University of Southern California becomes one of the first universities to allow students to major in entrepreneurship.

1979: The number of U.S. colleges and universities offering one or more courses in entrepreneurship reaches 150.

1997: An estimated 400 four-year colleges and 600 community colleges offer at least one course in entrepreneurship.