Thomas’s effort is part of a larger trend by business school leaders to establish entrepreneurship programs that act as academic bridges to students who study subjects as varied as art, public policy and engineering.
Business school was once largely the purview of students keen on pursuing careers in accounting, finance or management. But now graduates of all stripes are clamoring for help navigating a modern workplace where innovation, savvy and hard work often trump book smarts.
Nationally, the case for entrepreneurship is building. The White House often points to data from the Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship and its role in the economy, that asserts net new job growth comes almost exclusively from young companies. President Obama has even made entrepreneurship and new business creation a cornerstone of his economic recovery plans.
But for universities, entrepreneurship itself is relatively new as a field of study. There’s less research and fewer textbooks to support it than other subjects, leaving some schools to struggle with how to best build it into the curriculum.
An academic bridge
Students from across George Mason University’s Northern Virginia campuses were eligible to enroll in a minor program focused on entrepreneurship at the start of the academic year. It’s an undertaking that was three years in the making.
Mahesh Joshi, an associate professor of management, was one of the program’s architects. The classes build on a growing belief at George Mason that entrepreneurship should not belong to any one department, he said.
“If business schools said that creative ideas can only come from the school of business, it would be to their detriment,” Joshi said. “They can arise anywhere.”
“I ask students to interview successful entrepreneurs, and then I ask them to check their functional background. Most of them don’t have a business degree,” he added.
The University of Maryland in College Park has made similar efforts to blend academic programs. As the university introduces more interdisciplinary courses to its curriculum, the business school has devised entrepreneurship classes for students in journalism and engineering, among others.
At George Washington University, students outside the business school were invited for the first time last year to participate in an annual business plan competition. The four-year-old contest rewards innovative and viable ideas with prize money.
The universities say these programs are poised for growth as demand among students climbs. Graduates today are less likely than their parents to work in just one career field and high-profile young entrepreneurs have made the prospect of self-employment seem more attainable.
There’s also economic incentive. College students are graduating with mounting levels of debt only to find a tight job market. Many cannot find work or must settle for jobs outside their career of choice.
“A lot of schools have been forced by economic times to be more entrepreneurial, otherwise their students aren’t going to make a living,” said Bob Litan, vice president for research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation.
Professors at American University have submitted to the board of trustees a new graduate program in media entrepreneurship, which if approved could begin enrolling students this fall. The program combines course work from the schools of business and communication in an effort to find fresh ways of delivering the news.
The interdisciplinary program is one of many that the business school offers, either on its own or in partnership with other departments. Stevan Holmberg, chair of the management department, said the blend of academic backgrounds also pushes traditional business students to think more broadly.
“One of the challenges I think is to help business students become even more creative and somewhat reflective on what their own mind-sets are,” Holmberg said. “How you see the world, how you filter data, all of that influences whether you look at a problem and see opportunities.”
The curriculum for the pending media entrepreneurship program, despite its name, is rooted heavily in the core disciplines of business, Holmberg said. Students will be expected to complete courses in finance, management and marketing.
“We think they’ll come out with a much richer understanding of the business skills and competencies they’ll need to be successful if they start a new media venture,” Holmberg said.
A new discipline
The influential Kauffman Foundation also helped set this trend in motion through its Kauffman Campus initiative, which was started in 2003 to provide colleges with grants for cross-campus programs. Eighteen universities have shared in $50 million so far.
But the lessons from that effort, which is now in its final year, have been less tangible than the organization anticipated.
“When you’re dealing with young people, it’s not just entrepreneurship that’s important,” said John Courtin, a vice president at Kauffman. “There’s a whole suite of skills you have to develop.”
Kauffman’s Litan said the program has not yet had a discernible effect on the number of start-ups being formed. Furthermore, entrepreneurship and how it’s taught was interpreted differently at almost every school, making it difficult to generate meaningful data about what really works.
Many business schools in the Washington region have added start-up incubators, elevator pitch competitions and other hands-on activities outside the classroom in recent years. Litan said these often prove more successful than instruction alone.
“Not many schools teach a course that basically has the kids think up an idea and actually implement it while they’re in the course,” he said. “That’s really hard to do in three and a half months.”
The question has also been raised about how much of a curriculum entrepreneurship ought to consume. Students often need expertise in a particular subject matter before creating a business from scratch, lending further support to the idea of interdisciplinary programs.
“I would not send my kid to major in entrepreneurship,” Litan said matter-of-factly.
Instead, he and Courtin said schools that incorporate entrepreneurship into current fields of study or as a minor program often provide the most effective balance. After all, every student, including those that study entrepreneurship, need a backup plan.
“One of the things that seemed inherent in our Kauffman Campus program is we wanted everyone to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates,” Courtin said. “You just can’t scale a business if you don’t have a lot of people whose career it is going to be to not be the founding entrepreneur. That’s another thing that I think we learned quietly from this process.”