Colleges rush to nurture future entrepreneurs

Colleges rush to nurture future entrepreneurs

The original charter of Rice University, drafted in 1891, established a school here dedicated to the advancement of literature, science and art. These days, Rice seems equally dedicated to the advancement of the next Mark Zuckerberg.

The university offers academic courses in entrepreneurship strategy and financing, extracurricular start-up workshops and a summer prog-ramme for students seeking to start companies.

In August, Rice announced a multimillion-dollar “entrepreneurship initiative” to develop more courses and programmes in the subject. And administrators say they hope to erect an entrepreneurial centre to house classes and services supporting student projects.

“We want Rice to be one of the schools at the top of the list of schools that prospective students with entrepreneurial aspirations say would be a good place to realise their ambitions,” said David W Leebron, Rice’s president. “This is a nontrivial group of students, some of the smartest students, the most creative students.”

Ten years ago, it may have sufficed to offer a few entrepreneurship courses, workshops and clubs. But undergraduates, driven by a sullen job market and inspired by billion-dollar success narratives from Silicon Valley, now expect universities to teach them how to convert their ideas into business or nonprofit ventures.

As a result, colleges — and elite institutions in particular — have become engaged in an innovation arms race. Harvard opened an Innovation Lab in 2011 that has helped start more than 75 companies. Last year, New York University founded a campus entrepreneurs’ lab, and this year, Northwestern University opened a student start-up centre, The Garage.

“Today’s students are hungry to make an impact, and we have to be responsive,” said Gordon Jones, the dean of a new College of Innovation and Design at Boise State University in Idaho and the former director of Harvard’s Innovation Lab. Yet campus entrepreneurship fever is encountering skepticism among some academics, who say that start-up programmes can lack rigor and a moral backbone.

Even a few entrepreneurship educators say that some colleges and universities are simply parroting an “innovate and disrupt” Silicon Valley mindset and promoting narrow skill sets — like how to interview potential customers or pitch to possible investors — without encouraging students to tackle more complex problems.

“A lot of these universities want to get in the game and serve this up because it’s hot,” Jones said. “The ones that are doing it right are investing in resources that are of high calibre and equipping students to tackle problems of importance.”

In trying to develop rich entrepreneurial ecosystems, many institutions are following a playbook established years ago by Stanford University and MIT, which involves academic courses, practical experience and an extended alumni advisory network.

Some universities are redoubling their efforts. Princeton, offers a variety of entrepreneurship courses. But, in a report released in May, a university advisory committee concluded that Princeton had fallen behind competing schools that had made “major upgrades” to their programmes.

Among other issues, the report said, Princeton had allotted “only 1,500 square feet” for student incubator and accelerator programmes, “whereas Cornell has 364,000; Penn 200,000; Berkeley 108,000; Harvard 30,000; Stanford 12,000; Yale 7,700; NYU 6,000; and Columbia 5,000.”

In November, Princeton celebrated the opening of a 10,000-square-foot Entrepreneurial Hub near campus. The university is also starting a summer internship programme in New York City so that students can spend time at young companies.

Mung Chiang, the director of the Keller Centre for Innovation in Engineering Education at Princeton, said the university wanted to help students, faculty and alumni become more entrepreneurial in business, government, and nonprofit work. “It’s about broadening people’s mindsets and capabilities,” Chiang said.

The growth in campus entrepreneurship is clear, administrators say. In 1985, college campuses in the United States offered only about 250 courses in entrepreneurship, according to a recent report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which finances entrepreneurship education and training. In 2013, more than 400,000 students were taking such courses.

The prospect of starting the next Snapchat or Instagram is one attraction for students. But in a tight job market, where young adults say they expect to change employers every few years, some undergraduates are signing up for start-up training in the hope of acquiring self-employment skills.

“To be honest, our generation is no longer interested in doing one thing for the rest of our lives,” said Mijin Han, a senior at Rice with an English major and a business minor focused on entrepreneurship. “Our generation is interested in learning different things, and, if the environment does not provide it, we want to jump out and take a risk.”

Funding ideas
To support the programmes, colleges and universities are raising money and seeking mentors among successful alumni and local business leaders. Some provide stipends for students participating in accelerator programmes or offer seed capital for their start-ups; others may negotiate revenue-sharing arrangements if graduate students want to commercialise ideas developed in university labs.

Yet the quick start-up workshops offered on some campuses can seem at odds with the traditional premise of liberal arts schools to educate deliberative, critical thinkers.

“Real innovation is rooted in knowledge and durable concern and interest, not just ‘I thought of something that nobody ever thought of before,’” said Jonathan Jacobs, who writes frequently about liberal education and is the chairman of the philosophy department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York. “That’s not educating people, frankly.”

That is one reason Rice administrators say they are consolidating and analysing current programmes before embarking on additional efforts. As part of that process, the university introduced an interdisciplinary forum last month to promote campus research, discussion and broader courses in entrepreneurship.

Leebron, Rice’s president, described the initiative as part of an effort to improve the hands-on, project-based learning students are requesting. “There’s no question that more people at the age of 18 are coming to universities saying, ‘I have an idea; I think I can have an impact,’” he said. “What are we going to do with these folks? How are we going to support them?”

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