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
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
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 [email protected].
This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].