Helping Students Develop Startup Mindsets

Charting more than one path to entrepreneurship.
Helping Students Develop Startup Mindsets

CAN BUSINESS STUDENTS LEARN what it’s like to be entrepreneurs by completing a single specialized course or project? Maybe, but for students to become true entrepreneurs—individuals who are curious, eager to try new ideas, and not afraid to fail—it’s better if they follow a step-by-step curriculum that spans their entire programs, says Vin­cent Ponzo, director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School in New York City.

The school has created such a framework with a newly reorganized curriculum, announced last fall during its annual four-day Startup Week. The framework is divided into four possible learning paths: Think, Start, Scale, and Invest. The Think path, meant for students who want to adopt entrepreneurial thought and problem-solving processes in a range of business contexts, includes courses in creativ­ity, idea generation, and opportunity identification. The Start path is for students who are planning to found startups or assume leadership positions in organizations; it includes courses on branding, business model genera­tion, and go-to-market strategy. Scale is for students who wish to learn how to grow existing businesses; it includes courses in areas such as digital mar­keting, growth through innovation, and organizational leadership. Finally, Invest is for those who wish to become angel investors; it features courses in areas such as seed-stage investing, growth and private equity, and venture capital.

This new organization draws largely on courses Columbia Business School already offered as part of its 20-year-old entrepreneurship program, says Ponzo. MBA students who aren’t pursuing en­trepreneurship specializations can take any course in these paths on a stand­alone basis.

Students also can complete intern­ships that are related to the paths they choose—for example, students in the “Start” path might choose internships at startup companies. The school also now features the Lang Scholars Pro­gram, a semester-long independent study program that pairs students with teams working in one of New York City’s busi­ness accelerators. Last fall, 17 students worked with 17 startup teams.

Although students choose their paths early in their programs, the school educates them about the possibilities of all four paths through guest speaker presentations and other activities. With this knowledge, students can quickly determine whether another path would be a better fit while they still have time to transition into a new set of courses. Some core courses such as marketing and strategy formulation appear in multiple paths, so that students who do switch paths do not have to start from the beginning.

“An MBA program is a very quick two years. Our students only have a finite number of classes they can take during their programs, and they don’t get to do things over,” says Ponzo. “So, we want to make sure that students who are interested in entrepreneurship, in whatever form, are fully aware of what their options are, what tradeoffs they might have to make, and what path will most easily help them complete their educational journeys.”

The Lang Center wanted to show students that entrepreneurship is about more than just launching new ventures, says Ponzo. “Fifteen years ago, when we talked about ‘entrepreneurship,’ we were talking about starting businesses. Today, it can mean starting a business, working at a startup, or simply having the ability to think entrepreneurially, whether you work at GE or JP Morgan,” he says.

“A business school’s students are its customers, so it makes sense for us to organize our information in ways that make it as easy as possible for students to find what they’re looking for. The better we organize the data, and the more consistently we write our course descriptions, the better informed the students will be and the better choices they’ll be able to make.”

The Lang Center’s new curriculum coincides with another new initiative: a research fellowship program that aims to prime the pipeline for faculty specializing in scholarship related to entrepreneurship. The center will award up to four PhD students with US$5,000 fellowships and invite them to present their research during the school’s public Entrepreneurial Research Showcase in the spring of 2018.

Columbia Business School has posted a “roadmap” for each study path at There, students can access a Course Planning Tool that will help them more easily plan their schedules, depending on which paths they have chosen and which courses are available each semester.