The Startup-Based Curriculum

Why we must design hands-on, for-credit programs that better serve student entrepreneurs.
The Startup Based Curriculum

STEVE JOBS. BILL GATES. Michael Dell. Mark Zuckerberg. John Mackey. Travis Kalanick. We’ve all heard of entrepreneurs who started multibillion- dollar companies. But that’s not the only thing they have in common—many also dropped out of college or high school. They felt that education was distracting them from, rather than supporting, their goals. They felt they had to make a choice: continue their educations or pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. They decided on the latter.

Recently, I was approached by one of my students, whom I’ll call Marc. Marc has an impressive professional network, holds an internship in a private equity firm, and is extremely motivated to start his business. Since he started our program, he even has secured initial funding from investors. But he shared his frustration with the way our MBA program was structured—and he was close to dropping out.

While Marc was dedicated to founding his company, he also had to maintain his grades to remain eligible for his merit-based scholarship. He had to weigh the importance of studying for a multiple-choice test he had to take the next day versus preparing a presentation he had to make to his investors to secure the next round of funding. He was frustrated because he felt that he was never going to use the concepts on that multiple-choice test for his career—that he was working 90 hours a week to keep up his grades and build his startup.

He wanted to know: Why couldn’t students like him follow an MBA track that would allow them to earn course credit for the work they completed for their startups?

This got me wondering about all the other entrepreneurs who have gone through a similar thought process. Yes, business education has evolved since the mid-1970s, when Bill Gates founded Microsoft and Steve Jobs founded Apple—and even since 2004, when Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook. Undergraduates now can pursue minors and majors in entrepreneurship; they can participate in business plan and pitch competitions, design challenges, investor meetups, and incubators and accelerators. They can look to others who started successful businesses while in college and who benefited from these institutions. These include entrepreneurs such as Neil Blumenthal, who founded Warby Parker while at the Wharton School; and Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who founded Google while at Stanford.

But these success stories also underscore the fundamental problems that remain. In most cases, while these founders worked on their companies, they had to attend lectures and study for final exams. They had to “check off boxes,” whether or not those boxes were relevant to their entrepreneurial careers. This approach serves students who want to become executives in established companies far better than it serves students who want to become entrepreneurs.

THE WRONG PREPARATION

As Steve Blank and Bob Dorf state in their 2012 book The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company, startups are not smaller versions of larger companies. While many of our undergraduate and graduate programs offer courses in organizational behavior, human resource management, marketing management, and accounting, they offer comparatively fewer courses on business model design, entrepreneurial team building, entrepreneurial finance, or founder transitions.

There are three problems with the way we typically teach entrepreneurship. First, many entrepreneurial competitions are extracurricular; students must find time to conduct market research and design pitches as they complete coursework and work part-time jobs.

Second, most programs include core courses that all students must take in their first year. Most MBA students must wait until their second year to take courses related to entrepreneurship, and undergraduates often must wait until their third or fourth years. Furthermore, at some schools, students can earn majors or minors in entrepreneurship just by taking a few courses. They might not work a single day helping others run startups or building their own.

Third, few schools award project- based undergraduate, MBA, or doctoral degrees. Although student founders put in a tremendous amount of work on their ventures, that work rarely counts toward graduation requirements.

It’s no wonder students like Marc become frustrated. When their coursework isn’t related to their startups, they are neither motivated to excel as students nor able to focus on their startups—and their performance in both areas suffers.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

If we want to help our students become founders—and help our regions create entrepreneurial ecosystems—we need a different approach. We must create startup- based curricula with entrepreneurship deeply knit into the coursework.

A project-based curriculum for student founders would not force students to take units just to meet graduate requirements. It would incorporate supervised mandatory independent study, where students would earn credit and grades for entrepreneurial activities.

Any core courses would cover topics relevant to the goals of entrepreneurs, such as designing business models, building pitch decks, and financing new ventures. Moreover, these courses would be offered in the first semester, not in the last year or two of the program. Faculty supervisors would then assess and assign additional courses for students to take, based on what each student needed to learn to succeed as an entrepreneur.

OVERCOMING THE CHALLENGES

I know of a handful of schools that have adopted this strategy in their entrepreneurial programs. For example, undergraduates at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, build actual businesses in their first year. At the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, graduate students can take part in ESTEEM, an interdisciplinary program designed to build entrepreneurial skills. The curriculum is tailored around a yearlong capstone project in which students apply lessons from the classroom to a technology commercialization effort. In 2018, the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi began allowing PhD students to launch startups instead of completing doctoral theses. But these examples still seem to be the exception rather than the norm. The Master of Business Creation at the University of Utah provides the entrepreneurs who enroll access to funding, mentorships, and faculty support as they pursue their degrees.

I realize that adopting a startup- based curriculum is easier said than done. This approach is time-intensive, requiring faculty and other partners in the entrepreneurial ecosystem—such as staff from the university’s incubators or accelerators—to work more closely with students as they build their startups. Tenure-track faculty, especially, might worry that this type of teaching might leave them less time to focus on their research. Universities would have to rethink their tenure and promotion policies and reward faculty for the additional time and contributions that a startup-based curriculum requires.

A startup-based curriculum also requires additional funding to support students as they test their hypotheses in the field, pursue market validation of concepts, and build prototypes. But I have found that many donors are excited by entrepreneurship—universities should be able to find sponsors willing to support students’ startup activities.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that a startup-based curriculum will require us to fundamentally transform our mindset and the way we teach entrepreneurship. But it is possibly the only way that we can ensure that aspiring entrepreneurs do not become college dropouts. As educators, we must ensure that we give them all of the tools and support they need to succeed.


Rangapriya (Priya) Kannan-Narasimhan is founding director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Catalyzer and associate professor of management at the University of San Diego School of Business in California. She also is a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Educators interested in exchanging best practices on designing startup-based curricula can contact her at priya@sandiego.edu.


This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.

Advertise With BizEd