The word "demonstration" at colleges and universities these days is more likely to refer to a product demonstration than to a protest march. When students aren't taking courses in entre-preneurship to learn how to start up their own companies, they're out hawking specialty painter's hats, fraternity party favors, after-class munchies, and even high-tech inventions.
"There's a revolutionary spirit among students who want to own their own businesses," says 21-year-old Brett Kingstone, a recent Stanford University graduate who is perhaps the best-known student entrepreneur in the country.The author of The Student Entrepreneur's Guide: How to Start and Run Your Own Part-Time Small Business, and owner of two small businesses himself, Kingstone says students are becoming their own bosses for many reasons, the least of which is money.
"Young entrepreneurs are making financial sacrifices to go into business," he says, and they are doing it for "philosophical" reasons. "Small companies bring new ideas to the marketplace," he explains, and thus can "influence the economy more" than some of their more staid "big business" counterparts.
Brian Dirsmith, a 21-year-old senior studying Romance languages and literature at the University of Chicago, echoes Kingstone's sentiments. At the age of 15, Dirsmith opened his own catering company called Serves You Right. Six years later, his Highland Park, Ill., firm employs 30 people part-time. Dirsmith has handled formal receptions for over 450 people.
"I love being able to call the shots," he admits. "Knowing I am in control of my own company allows me an enormous amount of freedom." And, he adds, owning his own business is a "thrill."
Ten years ago, only a dozen or so schools offered classes in entrepreneurial studies. In 1980, a study by University of Washington professor Karl Vesper showed 155 such programs. According to John Hornaday, the director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., there's been a similar leap in the number of student-owned companies.
While no one can say exactly how many such companies exist today, Hornaday suspects student start-ups are on the rise. "College years are a good time to start a company. Students can often take more risks than older entrepreneurs who have family and financial responsibilities," he notes. And there are professors students can turn to for advice.
At Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., a nonprofit revolving fund at the Center for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) provides students with what director Dwight Baumann calls "pre-venture capital. We help students get started in business when only their mothers believe in them," he says.
When Baumann came to Carnegie-Mellon 10 years ago, there was only one student-owned firm. Today, the school's CED can boast successes like Elcomp Systems, a $1 million a year medical accounting firm, and Compuguard, a company that makes computerized energy management systems. Started by students in 1972, Compuguard was sold a year ago to Switzerland's Brown Bovari & Co. for over $6 million.
Not all student ventures are quite so successful, admits Kingstone, who runs a small publishing house as well as a fiber-optic lighting systems firm with a former classmate as a partner. But that may not matter. "Independence and satisfaction, that's what it's all about," he says.