A few weeks back, I read Victoria Schramm’s post on Forbes.com called “5 Reasons Why Undergrad Entrepreneurship Courses Aren’t Producing Entrepreneurs.” Given Schramm’s valid points, I’d like to suggest 5 ways to make undergraduate students more entrepreneurial.
1. All entrepreneurial learning should be voluntary and not for credit. I agree with all of Schramm’s observations about the problems with entrepreneurial courses, having observed these problems myself first-hand at several universities. It doesn’t have to be a for-credit course. The students who really want to be entrepreneurs will self-select, make the time to participate in the relevant extracurricular activities, and come from any discipline in the school, not just the business school.
2. Their first activity should be playing the VC. Undergrads rarely have the experience or skill to develop a realistic business plan, especially the financials. Instead, have their first experience with a business plan be as an evaluator, pretending to be a VC.
Most college towns have “real” business plan competitions going on throughout the year. (A good source for finding them is BizPlanCompetitions.com or contact local/regional economic development agencies.) In these competitions, there is a real business opportunity and innovation involved. There are people who can staff the company and who have already put in months of work, including protecting intellectual property (IP). This is a ripe learning opportunity for undergrads.
Coordinating with at least one of the area competitions to have interested students augment the evaluation panels has several advantages:
- It allows undergrads to see real plans so they can learn what is involved and required to prepare one.
- They can listen to and learn from real experts that are asking questions and coaching the teams.
- It might spark ideas for the students or create opportunities for them to join an existing effort.
This type of experience not only provides a reality check on what will be expected when the students get to the point of creating their own business plan for a viable idea, but it also helps them think about the opportunity from the other side of the table. (Why should I, as the VC, give you my money and not give it to someone else?)
3. Host an open lecture series with real entrepreneurs. The best class I had at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School was Rollie Tillman‘s entrepreneur class. What made this class so good was not just the fact that professor was amazing — which he was — but the entrepreneurs he brought in to talk about their company and experience. (Actually, this could be a 1-credit class for all disciplines if you really want a culture change on your campus. In that case, advertise it broadly and make it open for anyone to attend.)
As for the speakers, they shouldn’t be the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. Instead, bring in smaller companies — they’re more typical and a more realistic, achievable future for the students. These folks will help students see that it isn’t about home runs, that it’s hard, that there are many ways to structure a business, that there is something to learn from failures, etc. Movies like The Social Network make it look too easy, and that is not representative of the other 99.999% of the new companies formed.
Also, bring in entrepreneurs at different stages of the process — one who has just launched and is getting the VC pitch together, another who has funding but hasn’t completed product development, yet another who has been in business for several years, and a failed entrepreneur. Most startups fail in the first 5 years, so it’s critical that students (especially Millennials) understand that failure is likely and part of the process. Have the lecturing entrepreneurs represent different areas: family-owned, service-based, low-tech, high-tech. Bits and pieces of what each one shares will have some relevance to future entrepreneurs.
4. When they are ready to do a business plan competition, put students into cross-disciplinary teams. Most startups need all sorts of people to make them work. Having judged many business plan competitions, I can tell you that we have never awarded a prize to a company that didn’t involve at least one engineer, scientist, or doctor. Likewise, no all-techy team has won either. The best teams all had someone with business and finance capability as well as someone with the requisite technical expertise. Help the students form these cross-disciplinary teams.
5. Collaborate with the community. Rather than create a department- or university-based program, include “real” entrepreneurs, investors, lawyers, and other experts as mentors, lecturers, business plan evaluators, etc. Not only do these people know what they are talking about (and have the scars to prove it!), but they can be coaches and connectors for the student if and when they get their big idea.
In closing, I have to say that I was pleased to see the great work being done at Georgetown by Jeff Reid getting attention in Schramm’s article. I had the pleasure of working with Jeff when he was first establishing these types of excellent entrepreneurial extracurricular activities at the University of North Carolina, such as the Carolina Challenge, now run by Patrick Vernon. I’m glad these initiatives are still a reality.
What suggestions do you have for making undergrads more entrepreneurial? Leave a comment below or send me a private message.