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Education Nation: Growing Future Entrepreneurs

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Read any letter from a university president these days and you will inevitably find the words “entrepreneurial” or “entrepreneurship.”

Instead of addressing budget cuts, university brass will often outline their new “entrepreneurial approach” to fiscal challenges.

With regard to curriculum, there is an energized emphasis on innovation, technology and entrepreneurship. Regardless of how it entered the lexicon of the academic hierarchy, university leaders are preaching what students have known for decades: entrepreneurs (and the skill sets they bring to the table) make the world go round.

Whenever I get together with fellow entrepreneurs or CEOs and reveal that in my double-life I teach in a business school, the inexorable question arises, “Can you really teach entrepreneurship?” The answer is an enthusiastic “yes.”

With an energetic focus on creativity combined with real-life practices, we give the entrepreneurs of tomorrow the tools to create successful start-ups and launch companies with true growth potential. At the University of Southern California and many other successful entrepreneur programs across the country, this gets accomplished in three main ways:

1. We show students how to think differently - When presented with a challenge to solve, we have all heard the term “think outside the box.” This is a quaint colloquialism that gets abused by parents and professors alike. Worse, academics have created a term for it: effectual thinking. All rhetoric aside, there is a discipline to creative problem solving. It entails an iterative process of collaboration, trial and error, brainstorming and bootstrapping. But, we don’t just tell students how to think differently, we show them. During the course of any given semester, entrepreneur classes will bring in an average of 8-10 guest speakers. These guest speakers are cut-from-the-cloth entrepreneurs who have survived the wars and lived to tell their tales of failure and success. When soon-to-be entrepreneurs learn from battle-tested entrepreneurs a funny thing happens: the light bulb gets turned on. Creativity begets creativity.

2. We kick students off campus - Ask any entrepreneur how much creativity happens behind their desk or computer screen and they will answer: none. The same holds true for students. So, we force them to venture outside university walls and meet industry contacts face to face (an increasingly novel concept in the age of social media). In our introductory classes, students must meet face to face with an entrepreneur for an in-depth interview. In our feasibility and business plan classes, they are forced to go out and meet with customers, suppliers, distributors, web developers, service providers, etc. In our incubator classes, students must get off campus and create their own employment agreements, post a real e-commerce website, develop a product or service and reach a certain sales level-- all in one semester. In a radical new program, business students at USC must spend a year in Milan at Bocconi University and another at Hong Kong Science & Technology University which will then qualify them for business degrees from all three universities.

3. We put our money where our mouth is - Every year, hundreds of thousands of dollars come up for grabs in various start-up competitions across campus. When free money gets introduced, great things happen and students get focused. We can teach the discipline and practice of “effectual thinking” until we become blue in the face. The rubber meets the road when a $50,000 first prize is at stake. These competitions are heated, highly competitive and judged by notable angels and venture capitalists. Those who distinguish themselves in these presentations often go on to larger rounds of capital and receive mentoring relationships.

The final question becomes, “How many entrepreneurship students actually go on to start companies?” This is difficult to track mostly because we encourage our students to gather some industry experience before they make that leap. That said, about 18-20% of our entrepreneurship program graduates go on to start firms right after graduation. A much larger percentage join established start-ups or high growth middle market firms and eventually make the leap into entrepreneurship in their early 30’s.

Regardless of where entrepreneur students land, the feedback remains the same. Those who receive an education with a sprinkling of entrepreneurial emphasis are ahead of the curve. From the Fortune 500 to Silicon Valley’s latest phenomenon, an ability to meet challenges with an entrepreneurial mindset is essential. It can be taught. And those who get exposed early are better prepared to become the leaders of tomorrow.

This blog post is part of NBC News’ Education Nationinitiative, engaging the country in a solutions-focused conversation about the state of education in America.

Sector Watch - Education and Training Services:

  • Corinthian Colleges Inc.
  • DeVry, Inc.
  • ITT Educational Services Inc.
  • Apollo Group Inc.
  • School Specialty Inc.
  • Scholastic Corp
  • Capella Education Company
  • Career Education Corp.
  • Strayer Education Inc
  • Education Management Corp

Brian Sullivan is the co-founder and Managing Director of Forwardline Financial, LLC, a specialty lending company providing loans to small business retailers nationwide. He is also an adjunct professor of entrepreneurial studies at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

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