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BOOTSTRAPPING

Guest Speaker: The Real World

Forget the elaborate business plans. Kids with passion are our next great entrepreneurs.
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Each morning, as I enter the campus through the main gates of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, I pass a statue of Sigmund Freud. Ask anyone on campus about the significance of the statue and they'll tell you that it commemorates a series of historic lectures Freud gave at Clark in 1909 to promote his ideas in the United States. It would be the only time Freud lectured in this country, and he believed that lecturing here would give him and his young discipline credibility.

For me, the statue serves as a vivid reminder that if psychology is considered one of the younger academic disciplines, my area of expertise--innovation and entrepreneurship--is a toddler, just taking its first steps. Today I teach the subject at Clark's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program, which I founded two years ago.

It was never my intention to create a university innovation program. First, I'm no academic. I spent the better part of my adult life running magazines. A few of you may recall that I was the editor in chief of this magazine for two decades.

What's more, when I left Inc. in 2002, I did so with a promise to myself that I'd never again have anything that looked even remotely like a full-time job. I'd become one of those "soloists" Inc. had written about and whom I had always secretly envied. I'd write a book exploring the myths about creating a new venture, invest in a handful of start-ups, continue my board work with nonprofits, and teach a university course or two. Of course, there'd be time for photography and chasing striped bass.

I arrived at Clark three years ago to teach that "course or two," and ended up falling in love with teaching and with the students. When the university offered me the chance to create a program based on the core principles that informed my classes, I jumped at the opportunity.

The guiding principle of the program is a belief that the entrepreneurial skills we traditionally associate with certain discrete populations--engineers in Silicon Valley, for example--have become vital life skills for everyone in today's globally competitive marketplace and rapidly changing culture. And so this undergraduate program was not designed to attract management majors, although we do get many of those students. Rather, we chose as our mission to complement a rigorous education in the arts and sciences. We offer only a minor in entrepreneurship, meaning that my classes are filled with students majoring in literature, studio arts, music, history, international development, biochemistry, and, yes, even psychology. The goal is simple: to encourage these students to follow their passion, whatever that might be, but to marry those studies with a set of skills--from salesmanship to an understanding of the principles of market research to the ability to lead and work in teams--that will dramatically improve the likelihood that they'll be able to create an economically sustainable life around that passion.

Our curriculum--our courses, our activities, our teaching, our mentoring of talent--is devoted to real-world entrepreneurship, to creating businesses rather than business plans. This separates us from the overwhelming majority of entrepreneurship programs in this country, which instruct students to identify a fast-growth segment of the marketplace (clean tech, software, medical devices) and then to create 300-page business plans that will attract venture capital. This approach is preposterous on the face of it. Every year, more than a million businesses are launched in this country. In a good year, VCs will invest in fewer than 4,000 of them. If I coached my 13-year-old son's basketball team the way most institutions teach entrepreneurship, I'd be giving the kids lectures about how to choose an agent and practice safe sex on the road.

Every element of the Clark program is based on the documented fact that the overwhelming majority of successful new ventures will be launched with little cash and lots of good old-fashioned bootstrapping. After all, isn't this entrepreneurship in its purest form: the transformation of human capital--risk taking, imagination, resourcefulness--into financial wealth?

It should come as no surprise then that most of the courses in my program are taught by current practitioners (the academic name to describe people who actually do stuff) who are creating and leading businesses and nonprofits. What they teach and how they teach it is informed by what's happening in the marketplace now. Just as important, they bring into the classroom that adrenaline edge that comes from total immersion in the process of creating something new.

Almost all undergrad entrepreneurship programs are centralized and located in business schools. Since Clark's has been designed from the ground up for all undergraduates, it is radically decentralized. Eight entrepreneurs-in-residence work with specific types of students--a former actress and independent film producer with students in the performing arts; the creator of a nonprofit venture firm in the book publishing industry with literature students; two social entrepreneurs-in-residence with students building not-for-profits in a wide variety of arenas.

These mentors work with students once they've entered the stage of the program at which they are required to actually launch a venture. The student projects are extraordinarily ambitious; we expect many students will choose to continue to develop them after graduation.

Take, for example, Brian Burns, a government major who is pursuing his passion for the triathlon. Brian's fledgling business, Multisport Maps, designs travel guides (and soon a companion Internet site) that amass information on the best local running trails, bike routes, and swimming pools.

Brian had the idea a long time ago--it appeared to him, as a consumer of extreme sports information, to be an unmet need. But it never dawned on him to actually do anything with the notion, at least not until he had to do a case study for a class of mine. The assignment was to visit a company, interview the founder, and then write a paper on its very earliest days. Where did the idea for the venture come from in the first place? What were the first steps the founder took to explore its viability? How much launch capital was required? How did he or she obtain it?

In addition to unearthing this birth narrative, I challenged my students to explore the hidden emotional story. What made the founder afraid? How did he or she work through that fear? Who did he or she turn to for emotional support and guidance at the most difficult moments?

Brian researched a high-end bicycle shop in his home state of Vermont. The founder was a sportsman, not a businessman. He still is. He never had the ambition to grow in traditional ways, but simply to be the best bike fitter in the world. You've probably never heard of Fit Werx, but cyclists have. They come from around the world to the town of Waitsfield, Vermont (population 1,710), to get fitted for new bikes.

Something clicked for Brian during that experience and that class. "I can still recall the night when things came together for me," he wrote to me recently in an e-mail. "I remember such a vivid feeling of excitement. What would the maps look like? How could I distribute them? What would I call this thing? It was almost as if I had no choice but to follow that excitement wherever it went.

"The key to all of this," Brian continued, "is that we didn't study entrepreneurship as I'd known it all my life--as something other people do. What I gained from that class was an understanding of entrepreneurship as something everyone can pursue.

"This might sound simple," he concluded, "but it turns out to be life changing."

I don't mean to suggest for a minute that I have all the answers to the crucial question of how entrepreneurship education should evolve in and adapt to a radically changing world. With this program, we're innovating, which means that even with a blueprint, we're making it up and adapting as we go along.

But what I see in Brian's e-mail is some validation that the program is already achieving its mission of helping young men and women see the value of applying the disciplines of entrepreneurship to their passions. And for that, I'm perfectly happy to let the striped bass get away.

George Gendron is the founder and executive director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program at Clark University. He served as editor of Inc. from 1982 through 2002.

To learn more about Clark University's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program, go to www.clarku.edu/clarkinnovation.




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