University courses in entrepreneurship are better—more useful, more real, more likely to produce actual companies—than they have ever been. Here are 10 we’d love to take.
Stanford's new entrepreneurship class is not for the faint of heart. Launchpad is designed around a series of hurdles: the elevator pitch, the functional prototype, week after week of sales results. After each hurdle, students are force-ranked, so someone always lands on the bottom. Midway through the semester, the class stages a trade show at which venture capitalists stroll around writing fictitious checks. Some students make out like bandits, while others are publicly stiffed. For the lesson on presentation skills, a television news crew is invited to record three-minute segments about the aspiring entrepreneurs' companies. Students feverishly practice and polish. Then the reporter shows up. "Sorry," she says, "I can only give you each 30 seconds." Panic, mad cutting, and humiliating performances ensue.
Oh, and all the companies are real, because students incorporate within the first two weeks. So failure is never just academic.
"It's all about building up your tolerance for risk," says Perry Klebahn, an associate consulting professor who, together with professor Michael Dearing, designed and teaches Launchpad. "Entrepreneurship does not require an IQ. You just need to be able to fail, learn, compost, and move forward."
The ubiquitous assertion "You can't teach entrepreneurship" was probably accurate back when schools fielded chiefly sterile exercises in business-plan writing. But increasingly, universities are devising innovative classes that emphasize experience over study and seek teaching moments in misery, messiness, and unpredictability. Academic concepts like effectuation—which emphasizes entrepreneurial ingenuity and improvisation—and a new, dynamic approach to business modeling are among the ideas drawing professors toward a fluid style of pedagogy that feels more like life. Often it is life; students may emerge with embryonic companies in addition to their grades.
Following is a portfolio of 10 outstanding entrepreneurship classes, distinguished by their excellence (most have won awards or been adopted by other schools), their innovation, and their ambition. You won't, by the way, find the excellent Launchpad on the list, but that is only because we chose another Stanford course instead, and we wanted to limit ourselves to one course per school. We also wanted to avoid overlap of focus, so the list includes, for example, only one class on developing new technologies, though our research identified several that are excellent. With more room, we could easily list another two dozen classes, among them The Founder's Journey at MIT, Virtual Enterprise at City University of New York, and Markets in Human Hope at the University of Virginia. For aspiring founders with questions about the value of entrepreneurship education, the answer is clear: The modern classroom definitely has something to offer.
Most entrepreneurship classes chase the strategy-innovation-finance trifecta. But people problems cause more than 60 percent of new-venture failures, research shows. Founders' Dilemmas dissects the people decisions entrepreneurs face at critical junctures—particularly in the beginning. Read more
The inventor-entrepreneur is a romantic figure. But plenty of companies thrive by commercializing the inventions of others. Technology Venturing builds businesses around sophisticated technologies that have not yet found commercial uses. Read more
Marketing, finance, operations, and HR can be studied separately. Entrepreneurship encompasses them all. So Babson College, a business-oriented school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, introduces its entire freshman class to the subject of business by having students start one. Read more
Each year, a dozen Stanford students get front-row seats for business drama at its most compelling. Mayfield Fellows spend a third of their nine-month class interning in young Silicon Valley companies, where "anything you can imagine happening in a high-growth, high-impact company has happened," says Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. (Seelig teaches the class with Tom Byers, who created it in 1996 and is the program's academic director.) "We've had changes of leadership, patent disputes, moving into new buildings. Last summer, a company went public. One year, we had two companies go out of business." Read more
Though marketing courses are legion in business schools, sales classes are hen's-teeth rare. That's one reason Craig Wortmann's class feels so refreshing. Read more
Some entrepreneurship classes live in business schools. Some live in engineering schools. The University of Miami's Launch Pad lives in the career center. "When students come in to talk about 'What should I do when I graduate?,' we advise them to think about their careers along a continuum, from working for someone else to starting their own business," says William Green, dean of undergraduate education. "Instead of treating entrepreneurship as something you do instead of a job, we treat it as a job." Read more
Both the socially conscious and the profit-minded see opportunity in a global market of up to four billion people living in poverty. Yet in most entrepreneurship classes, financially comfortable students develop products for customers who look a lot like themselves. Read more
Investors excel at sizing up entrepreneurial companies, because they see so many. Rob Wiltbank wants students similarly exposed. So while half his M.B.A. candidates at Willamette, a small liberal-arts school in Salem, Oregon, are launching start-ups, the rest are evaluating start-ups while embedded with angel groups. "We are learning entrepreneurship from both sides of the table," says Wiltbank, an associate professor at Willamette. Read more
Most entrepreneurs possess deep knowledge of their industries. So why shouldn't entrepreneurship classes be just as specialized? That's the logic behind NUvention, a group of classes that focuses on three verticals: medical devices, energy, and Internet businesses. Read more
Michael Haynie wouldn't dream of reality-checking his students with the possibility of failure. He teaches disabled veterans, whose confidence was shattered along with their bodies. "Our challenge is twofold," says Haynie, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship. "We must give them the tool kit to start a company and help them believe they can succeed." Read more
Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large.