Entrepreneurship Education for All
A Special Report by Adam Bluestein and Amy Barrett
Why it's time to take entrepreneurship training out of business schools.
Entrepreneurship education could use some new ideas. One model is the Launch Pad at the University of Miami, which provides hands-on help to students and alumni with promising ideas. Justin Gaither (left) and Dan Thibodeau had a pretty good one. Now they have 16 staff members and 80,000 customers.
In the late 1970s, about 500 colleges and universities offered courses in entrepreneurship. By 2005, more than 2,000 did so. Yet there has been no corresponding surge in start-up activity. "The things we've been trying on campuses have had a marginal impact, if that," says Dane Stangler, a researcher at the Kauffman Foundation. To be sure, there are individual programs that have a proven record of generating real companies. What they generally have in common is a belief that entrepreneurship training is for everyone -- not just M.B.A.'s, but engineers and art students, too.
A good case in point is MIT. The school's students and alumni start 200 to 400 businesses a year. One of the keys to that success is the school's Entrepreneurship Center. Launched in 1991, the center serves the university's five schools, acting as the nexus for entrepreneurship classes, clubs, and activities; connecting business students with scientists; and providing physical space, advice, and access to a network of entrepreneurs and investors -- all with the goal of creating new ventures. "We're the DMZ where the geeks can meet the suits and make companies," says the center's managing director, Bill Aulet.
Few schools, of course, can compete with MIT. The good news is that they don't have to. You don't need to be a tech hub to sell the idea of entrepreneurship as a career choice. Consider a program called The Launch Pad at the University of Miami, a private university in South Florida. Started in 2008, The Launch Pad invites students and alumni to submit a plain-English pitch about an idea for a company. Everyone who pitches an idea gets free advice. About 10 percent of applicants are selected to enter an individualized venture-coaching program, in which they work with volunteers from the local business community. Launch Pad staff helps students as needed, whether with financial projections or presentation skills. "Business is intimidating to people studying something else," says Susan Wills Amat, the program's co-founder. "Business people speak a different language and are very assertive. We get kids who are nervous about sharing and give them confidence and a support system."
In the less than two years since the program started, nearly 500 ideas have been submitted, and 45 businesses have been formed. Only about 20 percent of participants have been business students. Among the breakout companies: a streetwear line, Voler La Rue; Audimated, a social media platform for connecting indie music artists and fans; and Elemental Stereo, which makes stereo systems for golf carts and boats. Dan Thibodeau, co-founder of URoomSurf, a college-roommate matchmaking site, says he and his partner, Justin Gaither, couldn't have done it without help from the center. "Neither of us had ever run an e-commerce company before," says the 24-year-old. Today, URoomSurf has 16 staff members and more than 80,000 registered users.
The Launch Pad model is easily replicable, and Amat hopes it will go national. In April, the charitable arm of investment firm the Blackstone Group announced a $2 million grant to bring the Blackstone LaunchPad, modeled on Miami's program, to the Detroit-area campuses of Wayne State University and Walsh College.
Bottom Line Arts and humanities and science students need entrepreneurship education every bit as much as b-schoolers.