Breeding Technology Entrepreneurs in Iowa
BY Marc Ballon
The University of Iowa prepares its engineering students for the business world by offering a technology entrepreneurship program.
When conversation with Tony Mirchandani, a clean-cut 22-year-old senior at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, turns to business, his eyes widen and his speech quickens. His hopes and dreams are clearly bound up in businesses he can already envision, businesses he fully expects to start and run someday. When he discloses his ambitious goals ("I want to earn my first $10 million before I'm 35"), they don't seem far-fetched.
Dressed in a loose-fitting European-style sweater and exuding a confidence beyond his years, Mirchandani sounds like any one of the many business majors at American universities--but he isn't. Mirchandani is completing his bachelor's degree in electrical computer engineering.
A native of Chicago, he has spent much of the past four years living and breathing mathematical equations and scientific formulas. But in his junior year he began a quite different course of study, one involving such things as business-plan writing and small-company incorporation. Mirchandani will be one of the first students to earn the university's Technological Entrepreneurship Certificate, which Iowa began awarding last year to engineering majors who complete a curriculum in small-business management, consulting, and marketing. When Mirchandani graduates, in May, he will bypass the Fords and the TRWs of the world to start his own Web-based auto-brokerage company, Auto Works Unlimited.
"The idea of being able to build a business from scratch totally excites me," says Mirchandani, whose apartment is strewed with copies of Inc.,Success, and Money. "If I were just an engineer, I'd be sitting behind a computer for the rest of my life."
Like Mirchandani, engineering students across America have fallen under the entrepreneurial spell. At Stanford University (see " Stanford Preps for Silicon Valley"), more than 1,000 budding engineers swell the ranks of the Business Association of Stanford Engineering Students, which sponsors lectures from the likes of venture capitalist John Doerr and publicizes jobs at nearby high-tech start-ups. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., engineering students can now minor in entrepreneurship. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, about half of the 150 students participating in the school's intramural business-plan competitions are engineering majors. "Even Ph.D.'s are now looking to start their own companies," says John Hennessy, Stanford's engineering dean and the founder of MIPS Computing (now part of Silicon Graphics Inc.).
The Iowa certificate program, the first of its kind in the country, came into being at the behest of the dean of the College of Engineering, Richard K. Miller. After watching his engineer-trained brother, Jeff, strike it rich with a Silicon Valley computer start-up, he concluded that his students could benefit from a dollop of business training. "Exposing engineering students to entrepreneurship and business prepares them to be leaders in either a small business or a major corporation," says Miller, who wants to restructure the curriculum so engineers can take more courses in entrepreneurship. "Too many engineers now end up in a white coat in the back room of some organization."
Sixteen engineering students at Iowa are enrolled in the entrepreneurship-certificate program, which demands the completion of a minimum of six courses. Miller believes, however, that one-third of the 1,200 engineering undergrads will take at least one such course within the next few years. One of the students who has already profited is Binh Tran, a 28-year-old Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering. Binh, soft-spoken but intense, says the entrepreneurship courses he took last year prepared him to launch TNT Multimedia Development Co., a fledgling developer of educational CD-ROMs and Web sites.
On a similar track is Susan Jongewaard, a 22-year-old biomedical-engineering student and a certificate candidate. She spent last summer as an intern at a small Iowa-based medical-equipment manufacturer, where she drafted documents to help the company win certification for its products. Jongewaard, who has recently begun thinking of starting a consulting business after she graduates, says, "Engineering challenges my mind, but it's entrepreneurship that feeds my soul."