Ten years ago careers counsellors may well have balked at the notion of a student wanting to be ‘an entrepreneur’. But while the term is busy peaking as I type (Richard Branson didn’t call 2014 the year of the entrepreneur for nothing), education skewed for entrepreneurs has been around since the first half of the 20th century, with courses such as ‘Leading the Family Business’ and ‘New Enterprises’. More recently, in the wake of the dotcom boom of the ’90s and financial crisis of the late 2000s, its popularity has soared.
And while some may question whether entrepreneurial skills can really be taught at university, Karl Ulrich, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that they indeed can, but stressed that although a level of theory can be taught in “conventional ways”, other elements of entrepreneurship can only be learned by doing.
“For example,” he wrote, “In an entrepreneurship course that my colleague Tyler Wry teaches to undergraduates, students start micro-businesses, seeded with a US$20 investment. Students start and grow their businesses with any profits donated to charity at the end of the semester.”
Sure, this kind of study comes at a price – both in terms of time and dollars – and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that emerging entrepreneurs could do and learn just as well by getting straight down to business (Steve Jobs was a college dropout, while Richard Branson never even finished high school), but as Karl points out, the university setting poses less risk, so students are more inclined to experiment, and they have the added support of on-hand mentors and fellow self-starters should things go awry.
For those ready and raring to (en)roll, there’s a vast array of entrepreneurship-related classes available – from the 33 currently running at Harvard to a short course in topics such as ‘Pitching Skills’ at University College London and ‘Women Entrepreneurship and Leadership in Africa’ at CEIBS Africa – not to mention the mass of online offerings.
This year, the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at Sydney’s UNSW Business School unveiled a suite of online MBA programs across ‘change’, ‘technology’ and ‘social impact’, collectively dubbed MBAX. Professor Nick Wailes, associate dean (digital and innovation) at UNSW Business School and head of AGSM Online, calls it the “MBA of the future”, poising start-ups for scale, connecting students with 14,000 alumni worldwide and offering a must for entrepreneurs – flexibility.
“You can slow down or speed up depending on what is going on with your venture,” Nick explains, “And you can also choose to do the courses in almost any order. So for example, you can take a marketing course while you are developing your marketing strategy.”
The program launched with a panel of female leaders talking on the subject of women in technology – an issue that Nick says MBAX will address.
“The fact is that technology in Australia and around the world has a gender problem and if we can’t do something about it, it will affect our economy. It’s so great to see how many female entrepreneurs are starting to take on established companies in the technology space and we want to contribute to that.”
Queensland’s Bond University has seen great success with its Bachelor of Business (Entrepreneurship and Innovation), with graduates securing jobs with Google and Uber, or starting their own companies and exiting for millions of dollars.
“Entrepreneurship is a set of skills and body of knowledge designed to prepare you for today’s ever-changing business environment,” says Head of Entrepreneurship, Baden U’Ren. “Graduates are not defined by a field of work, but rather by the manner in which they deliver value for their employers, or themselves.”
University of Melbourne is singing a similar tune.
“We want to create and empower the next generation of audacious entrepreneurs who want to create the new enterprises of our economies,” says Rufus Black, master of Ormond College at the University of Melbourne, who notes that while Australia has lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs, tech start-ups alone could create 540,000 new jobs by 2030.
“What we are doing is changing the success rate,” he says – which, according to a recent Forbes article, sees nine out of 10 start-ups failing.
But things are most certainly looking up.
In fact, a whole new category – studentpreneurs – is surging in the business world. This year saw three former Syracuse University students offered US$2 million on the reality television series Shark Tank for their online reputation management company, BrandYourself – spawned in the Syracuse Student Sandbox incubator in 2009. (Despite this deal not coming to fruition, they’ve since reported revenue of around US$6 million.)
Time to hit the books? Can’t hurt.