As student demand for entrepreneurship swells, local colleges expand programs


Georgetown students Elisa Vitalo, left, and Jeff Stafanis, right, work on their business startups with Jeff Reid (white shirt), director of Entrepreneurship Initiatives, and Philippe Chetrit (pink shirt), chief executive of Affinity Lab. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)

Students and faculty from across Georgetown University were invited to pitch their business ideas last year in the first-ever Hoya Challenge. Participants were eligible for $10,000 in cash prizes and workspace this summer at a local business incubator.

The year-long event, a living lesson in entre­pre­neur­ship, never involved a textbook.

The university is one of many in the region ramping up its entre­pre­neur­ship programs, both inside and outside the classroom, as a growing number of students in business schools and beyond want to study the subject.

The dynamics pushing the trend are varied. The troubled economy has made traditional jobs more difficult to obtain. Flashy success stories such as Google, Facebook and Groupon give entrepreneurship a certain glamour. And many of today’s graduates are less likely than their parents to pursue careers in a single company or industry.

But entrepreneurship has proven tricky for business schools that strive to prepare students for the real-world opportunities it can present without the same amount of academic research and textbook fodder found in disciplines such as finance, management or marketing.

As a result, many local universities have taken a hybrid approach, pairing traditional education tactics, such as courses and lectures, with less-conventional endeavors, including incubators and business competitions.

“It’s a big priority for us to make sure entrepreneurship is not just an academic topic,” said Jeff Reid, director of Georgetown’s 2-year-old Entrepreneurship Initiative. “It’s not something you just talk about in a classroom. You’re interacting with the people who are doing it.”

Entrepreneurship has long had a place at the University of Maryland. In fact, the business school’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship turned 25 this year. But Managing Director Asher Epstein says the programs of late look beyond business students.

Epstein taught a course called “Entrepreneurial Thinking for Non-Business Majors: How Not to Miss Great Opportunities Your Life Throws at You” last year and demand was so great the university plans to bring it back this academic year.

“What we really focus on is trying to make the initial exposure to entrepreneurship very accessible,” he said. “We basically think lots of students have ideas and want to try entre­pre­neur­ship, and you don’t want to make it too intimidating for students to get that first taste.”

George Washington University opened its annual business competition, now in its fourth year, to students outside the business school for the first time last year. As the school undergoes some restructuring, business school dean Doug Guthrie says they’ll be adding staff to teach entre­pre­neur­ship.

“Business schools have had somewhat of a complicated role with the development of the field of entrepreneurship. It’s always been a fringe field, no one knew where to put it,” he said. “But over the last decade it’s gotten more and more momentum, and there’s more high-profile stars who identify with the field.”

But can entre­pre­neur­ship — with its required penchant for change and risk — actually be taught?

Jim Wolfe thinks so. As an assistant professor at George Mason University, he’s helped the School of Management expand its entre­pre­neur­ship courses and programs to undergraduate students.

“We actually thought back in the 1920s that you could not teach business,” Wolfe said. “We had the Wanamakers and the Fords and the Carnegies, so people thought years ago that you’re just born into business.”

The same has been said of entre­pre­neur­ship. “Everybody said you can’t teach it, you have to be born for it, and that happens to be wrong.”

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries. Steven graduated from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He resides in the District.
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