A dozen company owners, savoring the afterglow of a successful overseas conference (and more than a few cocktails), settled back to hash over the week's gains. "Second best experience I've had in 30 years of business," declared one. Knowing the man to be something of a swashbuckler, both personally and professionally, the group laughed when somebody challenged him to reveal his idea of a "best" experience.
The chuckling and elbowing stopped, however, with the entrepreneur's unexpected answer: "Teaching." His colleagues, many of whom turned out to be seriously thinking of doing the same thing, peppered him with questions. Why did he choose to teach? How much effort went into it? What did he get out of it? He told of long hours spent correcting papers, of frustrating student attitudes, and of the culture shock of working within an academic setting. He also said -- as have many others who took their entrepreneurial experience into the classroom -- that teaching offered him the intellectual challenge his business hadn't in quite some time. "It's keeping me young," he said.
Teaching ranks high among the avocations that come to mind when successful entrepreneurs ponder what to do next. They may have been only marginal students themselves, and their formal business education may have been minimal, but people who have built a company worth several million dollars, or 10 times that much, feel they have wisdom to share on the subject of business -- or, more specifically, on starting a business. Having acquired the prerequisite combination of knowledge and street smarts it takes to succeed with a start-up, they welcome the chance to flatten out the learning curve for the next generation of risk-takers.
Until fairly recently, this desire to "give something back," as so many put it, was frustrated. Those with an itch to teach had only peer consulting or small-business networking with which to scratch it. Anyone who wished to influence broader opinions about the role of business in society -- and entrepreneurial experience tends to breed the urge in those who don't come by it naturally -- went unfulfilled for lack of educational credentials. Academia's long-standing message had been that only those with alphabet soup after their name need apply.
But today, show a college or a university an entrepreneur who is willing to teach, and -- degrees or no -- all but the stodgiest schools will stumble over themselves to make the hire. It's a market-driven phenomenon: students are demanding more experienced business teachers than the postsecondary schools are able to supply. Within the past decade, some 400 colleges and universities have launched entrepreneurship seminars, courses, and degree programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and still the classes remain oversubscribed.
Questions remain, however, about the quality of the instruction in a field that is considered somewhat maverick at best, and at worst, a fad. In the eyes of some, the schools that hire entrepreneurs to teach basic business skills too often get exactly what they pay for: cheap, unskilled labor. Academics are particularly irked by what they describe as pompous chief executives who go into class expecting their own war stories to cover a lack of knowledge and preparation.
"All entrepreneurs seem to want to teach in terms of their own biography -- the 'how-to-do-it-how-I-did-it' method," says management professor O. Jay Krasner, of California's Pepperdine University. "They lack the research database that tells a student what works, in what circumstances."
Krasner recalls one entrepreneurteacher who urged students to stress patent protection above all else when founding a company in a rapidly expanding market. A student applied the advice in his own business, Krasner says, and wound up with a lot of legal bills to defend what had already become obsolete products. "Shouldn't that student have also been told that there are lots of times when you should accept the reality of copycatters, and plan accordingly?" He endorses the use of entrepreneurs as teachers, but only when they are teamed with academics who can give students a broader and more scholarly perspective.
Jeffry A. Timmons, a venture capitalist and business consultant who is on the tenured business faculty of Babson College, in Wellesley, Mass., acknowledges that the marriage of entrepreneurs and academia has been a bit rocky. "We all know of places where deans will sign up anybody who can make them $140,000 a semester in [registration] fees," he says. "We also hear of places where guys who built $20-million or $30-million companies have bombed out in class, which is hard on everybody, particularly the entrepreneur. But, in most cases, putting entrepreneurs in class has been a very proactive, outreaching sort of thing. They've brought a level of experience and savvy that has been lacking in business education for a long time." There isn't anything wrong with the relationship that a little improved communication won't solve, Timmons says.
In that spirit, Timmons and Price Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies recently co-founded a fellowship program. During the annual summer session, academics are paired with entrepreneurs who are teaching, or who plan to teach, at such institutions as Arizona State University, Case Western Reserve University, and the University of California at Los Angeles. The entrepreneurs -- who must have amassed a net worth of at least $1 million through starting and building companies -- learn the rudiments of various teaching methods, from lecture to case study. The academics gain real-world perspective for writing their curricula. Both sides come away with a heightened appreciation of the difficulty of melding academic rigor with the practical tools of entrepreneurial business.
Not all entrepreneurs, of course, are alike, in business or in the classroom. A craftsmanlike entrepreneur -- one who built a company around a better mousetrap -- may do best teaching his or her craft. An opportunist -- one who makes a career of looking for mice to trap -- may be better suited to teaching marketing or strategic skills.
"Control freaks don't grow good companies, and they don't teach well, either," says Timmons. "School isn't heaven for power maniacs, and there's too much time and sacrifice involved for it to make a good ego trip. There are a lot of terrific entrepreneurs -- some who may have made good teachers, and some who might not -- who get discouraged and say no if they really find out how challenging the experience is."
Entrepreneurs quickly find that the skills required to keep a class's attention and win a faculty's respect are new and different from those they are used to employing in business. "I won't say school is a hostile environment," says John Van Slyke, a lecturer at Harvard Business School and a consultant and developer of financial software, "but it's certainly demanding. Students don't get paid. The tools you have to motivate in business simply aren't present in the classroom. You have to find ways of twiggling the other side of the black box, so to speak." Instead of answering questions, the entrepreneur-teacher must learn to ask them. Rather than giving orders, he or she must adapt to the intricacies of leading discussions.
But it is the time and effort required to lead a dual life that is the major source of stress for most entrepreneur-teachers. While some say they devote as little as 5% of their time to teaching, many others say the effort doesn't pay off with less than a 30% commitment -- which is a staggering amount for someone still intimately involved in running a company.
Caroline Brainard, an assistant professor at Simmons College Graduate School of Management, says her four-employee, $4-million fresh-fish company, Blue Crown Seafood & Provision Co., of Boston, has occasionally suffered for the full-time classload she carries for two semesters a year. "When a restaurant owner calls to complain that he's gotten cusk instead of hake, he doesn't like hearing that I'm in class and can't be reached for an hour or so. And it's very hard to do things like negotiate a line of credit in phone calls between classes."
Employees don't always take kindly to the boss's absence, either. Dr. Arthur Karuna-Karan, who taught two classes at Seattle's University of Washington while launching a biotechnical firm called Cyanotech Corp., says his employees considered his decision to teach ill-timed. "There was skepticism when I started teaching, and relief when I gave it up," he admits. "The company was new, there was some uncertainty about it, and I was supposed to be out raising funds. There was a felling -- a demand, actually -- that I spend all of my time with the company."
Ask other entrepreneurs why they undergo the sacrifices required of them to teach, and they'll list a variety of personal and professional gains: Harvard's Van Slyke says it's made him "a better listener and a more interesting person." Jack Friedman, a New York City real estate entrepreneur, says that the various business-strategy courses he teaches give him "a structure outside of work." Dick Whitley, chief operating officer of Boston's Forum Corp., a management- and sales-training firm, adds, "Just preparing for class has helped me become more systematic about evaluating business problems."
Some of the benefits of teaching accrue more directly to business. More than a few entrepreneurs recruit job candidates from among their students, and some admit they find business opportunities in class. Burt Alimansky, a New York City investment banker, reveals that his teaching builds his client roster. "Because many of my students are accountants and attorneys, the fact that I teach gives them confidence in recommending our firm to their clients," he explains. "Others, who may be evaluating our services on their own, also get a measure of comfort knowing that NYU or the American Management Association has enough confidence in me to let me teach."
But what gets and keeps entrepreneurs excited about teaching is the opportunity to use the classroom to try to offer something of value to the business curriculum, some practical or philosophical issue that they perceive to be missing. "I'm in this out of rebellion," says Atlanta entrepreneur Glenn R. Sirkis, a co-founder of Hayes Microcomputer Products Inc. who plans to begin teaching this spring at his alma mater, Georgia Institute of Technology. "When I look back on my days in the business school, the only classes and professors I remember are the ones that taught me tools. I want to give the practical advice I never got very much of." Others seek to add a more realistic, or humanistic, perspective to business curricula that they see as dominated by quantitative analysis.
Dick Handal is CEO of Textiles Nacionales S.A., a textile manufacturer that has been active in a number of economic-development projects in its native Ecuador. This past winter, as executive-in-residence at Georgia Tech's College of Management, he wanted to show his students that there were businesspeople who wear white hats. "A lot of students see business as a zero-sum game, one in which somebody always loses. I wanted to be an example to them of something different."
Similarly, Charles Leighton's message is, "No matter what the textbooks say, street smarts beats analytic smarts every time; 'we' is better than 'I'; and it's people that count." The co-founder of CML Corp., a retail fashion company in Acton, Mass., Leighton has lectured at Harvard for more than a decade. Recently, he has become concerned about the number of students who are "interested only in deal-making."
Leighton, having grown a $200-million company from the acquisition of 10 companies, seems to be an odd one to be denigrating the value of deals -- a point his students make often. But, what he's trying to get across is that deal-making is fine, so long as internal growth and quality production aren't ignored after the papers are signed. "Growing one company from $2 million to $44 million, as I did, and another from $3 million to $42 million -- that's not just doing a deal and letting it die."
Whether or not the message gets across, Leighton enjoys trying to deliver it. "Bring up a subject like that in class, and it's 'Why, why, why?" he says with a chuckle. "It's fun to get out of my own sphere and get pushed around, intellectually speaking."
Enamored of the intellectual stimulation of school, and unwilling to divert any of their attention from it, an increasing number of entrepreneurs are turning teaching into a second career. Daryl Erdman, who holds the chair in small business and entrepreneurship at College of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minn., severed ties with several retail companies -- including the bulk of a supermarket chain that had been in his family for 60 years -- to join academe. "It was traumatic, but for years I'd been saying that teaching was something I was going to do. Apparently, nobody believed me. Why is that? Why is it that an employee gets everybody's best wishes when he or she leaves to do something else, but when the boss does, nobody understands it?"
It may be that people like Erdman are just ahead of their time. Timmons, for one, sees teaching as the answer to an ever more frequent dilemma: "You're in your thirties, you've worked seven or eight years, you've got $10 million or $15 million in your jeans -- so you sell out. For awhile, there's a sense of relief. But three or six months later, you're antsy, cranky, and the spouse wants you out of the house. What do you do? You either start the whole thing over again, or you look for something different." Teaching may be that something different.