Start a Company in College…Avoid the B.A. in Entrepreneurship

Photo by Maroquotidien

“The fact that you’re even here, is a very bad sign, because I wouldn’t be”…Jerry Seinfeld tells Steve Harvey in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee after being asked to teach a comedy class. Does the same logic apply to aspiring entrepreneurs taking entrepreneurship coursework?”

Many of today’s top tech executives started as student entrepreneurs, running businesses out of their dorm rooms:

  • AOL’s Steve Case ran a number of businesses as an undergrad at Williams College
  • Brian O’Kelley, CEO of adtech up-and-comer, Appnexus started a web design room out of his Princeton dorm
  • Michael Dell started Dell as a student at University of Texas
  • Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowski started Dropbox as MIT students
  • Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google during their time at Stanford
  • Sean Parker launched Napster during his time at Northeastern
  • Mark Cuban bought a bar as a senior at Indiana
  • Zuckerberg started The Facebook as a student at Harvard

Even if their early venture(s) did not evolve into Fortune 500 companies, many high-performing executives got their hands dirty in their undergraduate years.

State of Collegial Entrepreneurship

Until recently, undergraduates did not have the option to study entrepreneurship, one of the fastest growing majors in the US. Once confined to graduate programs, entrepreneurship coursework is increasingly available at American undergraduate universities — the National Survey of Entrepreneurship Education reported that entrepreneurship was taught at 93 colleges in 1979, compared to 1,600 in 2004, a number that is continuing to rise. The numbers may appear encouraging, but does Seinfeld’s logic for comedy hold true within this context? Can entrepreneurship be taught?

My presumption is that students should start business and take advantage of resources, not take coursework. It’s also rooted in my experience: as an undergrad with an entrepreneurial bug, I accumulated knowledge I never would have absorbed in the classroom (i.e. like learning how to attract beer enthusiasts to craft beer happy hours with a $100 budget).

In an effort to explore this hypothesis, I hit the streets and spoke with entrepreneurial students and recent graduates (graduated within the last four years) to see what they believe is the more effective: starting a company, or learning through university-offered entrepreneurship classes.

Insights from the data…

1. Those who started businesses tended to go into similar fields post-college

A majority of respondents (57%) worked, or were planning to work in the same industry as their college startup’s sector. About half of that 57% were working on the same company, or still had some involvement. However, about a quarter of respondents said they weren’t doing anything related to their college startup, or they had plans to do something different. I had expected more respondents to report working in tangential industries.

2. Top student entrepreneurs want out-of-classroom exposure

The vast majority (87%) of students I surveyed said they learned the most about entrepreneurship by starting a company. Remaining respondents answered “other” citing a combination of classes/starting a company, and meeting entrepreneurs as their top choice. No one identified solely taking entrepreneurship classes as the most effective method of entrepreneurial skill building. Out of the people who took entrepreneurship classes: only 13% wanted their universities to offer more structured entrepreneurship classes — this piece of feedback makes me think we’re teaching entrepreneurship wrong. Students wanted mentorship opportunities, outside speakers, and hard resources. Some requested more involvement with the community, and more exposure to potential customers.

3. Student entrepreneurs want more mentorship, and subsidized resources

Students had different views of how their university could improve the entrepreneurship major, with the majority selecting mentorship (speakers, community members) closely followed by hard resources (like AWS and DigitalOcean credits). There was a camp that requested more structured programs, two-thirds of which had already taken entrepreneurship classes. This insight suggests that students are interested in exposure to entrepreneurship, but want more from the existing coursework. Student entrepreneurs expressed frustrations that “entrepreneurship” classes were actually business plan writing classes that lacked hands-on learning opportunities.

4. There’s no one way to teach, or foster entrepreneurship

The feedback was nearly unanimous and abundantly clear: entrepreneurial students want to get their hands dirty. Survey respondents requested more internship opportunities, co-ops, and increased engagement from the local tech community, especially mentor figures. Universities are taking stabs to make the study of entrepreneurship a more hands on experience for undergrads: Drexel and Northeastern are known for their co-op programs; Tufts provides students with hands-on exposure to local tech companies. An increasing number of universities are offering resources to build physical space, hoping to attract members from the local tech community. Connecting dots for young entrepreneurs does not fall solely on universities, and in Boston, the New England Venture Capital Association offers TechGen, connecting students to local companies — and announced 11,000 student applications in 2016. It’s encouraging to see VC’s with larger portfolios (like Sequoia) establishing pairing programs like Sequoia’s Start @ a Startup (although most are aimed towards graduating students).

This article is meant to encourage universities to think differently around entrepreneurship, and to help college students seek problems happening in the real world, and ultimately solve them. Universities can improve in facilitating entrepreneurship beyond adding business plan writing courses. The student entrepreneurs who participated in the survey clarified the value in hands-on learning that comes from starting a company.

Thanks to an all-star crew of entrepreneurs: Ben Pleat, Sam Toole, Trevor Wilkins, Rebecca Liebman, Ian Leaman, Samara Gordon, Christian Nicholson, Wick Egan, Anders Bill, Jay Thakrar, Tom Coburn, Grace Xiao, Brian Truong, Olivia Joslin, Eli Koven, Hannah Wei, Jon Arbaugh, Ben Edelstein, Eddy Lee, Akshaya Annapragada, Phillipe Noel, Dhruv Gupta, Allison Kao, Ethan Kopit and others who helped make this piece possible.

If you’re a current or recent student entrepreneur and have a different perspective, shoot me a tweet @AshAEgan

Until next time,

Ash

@accomplices // prev vc @consensys @convergevp