It was 9 o'clock on a brilliant fall morning -- a Saturday, no less -- when hundreds of bleary-eyed freshmen dragged themselves to an auditorium at Howard University. And it wasn't the first time. On three previous Saturdays, Howard freshmen had been required to attend similar sessions to familiarize them with the challenges of market research, the intricacies of business plans and the joys of running your own business -- a series of lectures, workshops and group exercises that Barron Harvey, dean of the business school, has dubbed "entrepreneurial boot camp."
As a longtime business writer who has yet to persuade his college-age daughter to take even one economics course, I was intrigued when Howard announced it was adding this new requirement to its freshman curriculum. It turns out it is part of a larger effort at the university, funded in large part by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, which provided a $3.1 million grant to insinuate entrepreneurship education into every part of the Howard curriculum and "transform the way entrepreneurship is viewed, taught and experienced."
The purpose of the boot camp, according to Harvey, is to plant the seed in the minds of students that any major or career they mightchoose offers paths that lead to starting a business. And by taking some of the mystery out of the process, the hope is that the possibility won't seem too daunting when an opportunity presents itself.
As with any new idea, the boot camp curriculum needs more than a little tweaking, beginning with the big Saturday lectures on the intricacies of the balance sheet and the mechanics of venture capital. On the other hand, I found the kids thoroughly engaged in a smaller session with energetic alumnus Derwin Corria, whose Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries franchise is a favorite hangout for the Howard community. And while it's a fabulous idea to break the entire freshman class into 54 groups that compete for scholarships by coming up with a business plan for a new enterprise, it's obvious from the couple of working sessions I attended that real-life entrepreneurs are needed to guide students through the process.
While exposing students to business and entrepreneurship ought to be a part of every college curriculum, it's particularly important at a historically black university such as Howard.
The Commerce Department's most recent census of business, for example, found that while blacks make up about 12 percent of the population, black-owned businesses represent a mere 4 percent of all businesses and 0.4 percent of all sales in the United States. Of the 824,000 black enterprises in the country, only one in nine had any employees -- and among those, the average one had seven employees and $605,000 in sales. In number and size, black-owned businesses lag well behind those owned by other minorities.
Over the years, there have been lots of explanations for this relative lack of entrepreneurial success -- a shortage of capital within the black community, outright discrimination by banks and franchisers, finding more models of success in government, the professions and sports. Others point to the fact that other minority groups are made up largely of immigrants who, by definition, are a self-selected group of risk-takers.
But a recent study, also funded by Kauffman, puts the lie to the notion that blacks don't even think of starting their own businesses. At any given time, a significantly greater percentage of blacks than either whites or Hispanics is attempting to start a business. And this difference widens further among those in middle age, in upper-income brackets or with advanced degrees. Among black males with graduate degrees, for example, the "nascent entrepreneur" rate was 25 percent, compared with 11 percent for whites.
Howard University has now taken up the challenge of understanding this gap between entrepreneurial impulses and entrepreneurial success among black Americans, and coming up with strategies for closing it. Entrepreneurial "boot camp" is surely not the complete solution, but it looks like a good place to start -- and something the Washington business community ought to get behind.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.