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How to keep the next Zuckerberg from dropping out

What do Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Coco Chanel, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have in common? As any aspiring entrepreneur will quickly answer, none of these highly successful (and highly wealthy) business moguls graduated from college.

Does that mean making it to the Forbes billionaires list means you have to choose entrepreneurship in lieu of a traditional college education? Does getting a degree stifle an entrepreneurial spirit and cut off the next big idea at the pass? Do the success stories seen in the handful of college dropouts mentioned above prove there actually is a shortcut in business?

No, no and no.


Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2010
Getty Images
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2010

Entrepreneurship and formal education can, and should, co-exist. Universities need to create an environment to support both. And students need to proactively engage in being entrepreneurial and gaining knowledge.

By investing in the development of their students' entrepreneurial skills, colleges and universities can focus on the value of entrepreneurial thinking as a mindset and skill set that can be applied across disciplines and contexts, from start-ups to multinational corporations to non-profits, education and the government sector.

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It's easy to say that entrepreneurship is more than the theories and principles. That's true. But it's also true that foundational knowledge in any given field matters, too. Education isn't formulaic or magic. It's about creating opportunities and experiences for students where they can acquire basic knowledge along with critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Successful entrepreneurs have those characteristics along with the creativity and grit needed to navigate the rough waters of starting a new venture or driving change of any sort. Universities can and should be the place where students learn to blend knowledge (often learned in class) with the messiness of the real world.

There is no magic blueprint for how to build an entrepreneurial experience at a university, but I think there are more than enough resources, opportunities and examples of current success stories to provide a really strong foundation.

It is all about access. Students need access to resources that that can allow them to be creative, entrepreneurial and innovative.

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What if, as a college student, Steve Jobs had the same access to mentors, business networks and investors as he did after he dropped out? What if he would have had access to a co-working space and equipment where he and Steve Wozniak could have hacked their first computer board at the university? What if he had the flexibility in his curriculum to take even more arts classes than just calligraphy? What if he could have worked on his start-up as part of his curriculum?

Obviously, Jobs was remarkably successful on his own accord. But his success story is so well known because he is an outlier. The up-and-coming student entrepreneurs need a higher education learning environment where they learn and apply that learning to building a successful venture.

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Here are a few examples of things we can do at the university to create this kind of learning and practice environment:

Eat, sleep, and breathe entrepreneurship. Build a residential Startup Village of like-minded student makers, doers and innovators who can help foster the growing entrepreneurship spirit.

Hawk student products from a mobile storefront. We call our storefront the "Idea Box." Last week a group of students who are starting a monthly subscription service for toiletries delivered to college dorms used the Idea Box to sign-up customers.

Tackle real problems vs. contrived problems. Textbooks are full of contrived problems and exercises. Get out of the textbook and out of the building to solve real issues that will make a difference.

At Arizona State University we partnered with TechShop, a membership-based DIY facility that is at the forefront of the "maker movement." The intent of the partnership is to provide our students with a facility for easy access to prototyping and fabrication equipment. We think of this kind of facility as a 21st century extension to the library where sophisticated tools and software are added to the collection as new instruments of learning. Of course, students are working on class projects. But they're also exploring and making things for themselves and friends as well as starting their own businesses. The facility is also open to the public which creates a learning environment that is richly diverse, inviting and collaborative.

We host start-up competitions for students to apply for funding, office space and mentorship from experts. We have a residential living community called Startup Village where like-minded students can live near each other and support each other as they work on their start-ups in their garages and kitchens.

As Peter Drucker said, "Most of what you hear about entrepreneurship is all wrong. It's not magic; it's not mysterious; and it has nothing to do with genes. It's a discipline and, like any discipline, it can be learned." Universities have the responsibility to create an environment that fosters entrepreneurship if they want their best and brightest to stick around.

Commentary by Mitzi M. Montoya, vice president and dean of entrepreneurship & innovation at Arizona State University. She is also a professor in the management department at the W.P. Carey School of Business. Follow her on Twitter @InnovationDean.

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