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The Education Issue

Me, Inc.

Studying entrepreneurship isn’t just for business majors anymore.

By B.J. Roche
May 2, 2010

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It took Stacey Bilodeau awhile, but now she runs the kind of company she always wanted to work for. Several years ago, Bilodeau was working for a home health care agency and was dissatisfied with the level of care it was providing. So in 2007 she launched her own agency, Independent Solutions, which provides home care for patients with traumatic brain injuries. Business was slow at first, but last year the company generated $500,000 in revenues, and Bilodeau, 42, expects to hit $1 million this year. She’s planning to hire 15 to 20 new staffers in the next few months.

Her business success is partly due to her other career, as a student: Bilodeau is a psychology major at Bay Path College, a four-year liberal arts college in Longmeadow. She hopes to graduate next year and eventually pursue a doctorate in neuropsychology, which will enable her to provide intensive care for brain trauma patients. But along with her education in psychology, Bilodeau gets mentoring and business advice from entrepreneurship professor Lauren J. Way.

“This business is my passion,” Bilodeau says. “I’ve always wanted to be the boss. No matter what job I worked at, I always learned the whole business, as much as they would allow me to. But I never imagined I’d be where I am today.”

Bilodeau is part of a growing trend on campuses: students with an interest and engagement in entrepreneurship – and not just among business majors. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship at colleges, reports a jump in entrepreneurship courses nationwide from 250 in 1985 to 5,000 today. Such courses have long been a staple at business schools and institutions like MIT, Harvard, and Dartmouth, but what’s different these days is just who’s coming to class. Now students in the sciences, liberal arts, and humanities are learning how to develop a product or service, chattering about social media marketing strategies, and developing their customer base. Instead of building resumes, students talk about building their brands.

To be sure, entrepreneurship is a big – and overused – buzzword on campus; just take a look at any college website. And it’s no economic panacea. Interestingly, a Kauffman Foundation report found “no appreciable impact” on entrepreneurial activity in the United States as a result of all this education.

Still, for this generation, the idea that you can turn your education and passion into a living offers an optimistic, empowering counterweight to the landscape of declining opportunities. At least that’s what I found while teaching Entrepreneurial Journalism, a course in which students try to build their Web-based journalistic enterprise into a business. Journalism students face the worst job market in three decades, but it’s important for them to understand that their skills still have value, just in a different way. Now I’m finding interest in the course from students in disciplines like art, music, and business.

My students learned what entrepreneurs already know: The Web and other new technologies enable anyone with imagination, energy, and financing to create a product or service and sell it to a global market. And these young people like the idea of being their own boss.

“What I find is they get a taste of that independence and being in control, for better or worse, and some of them really like it, and they respond to it,” says Robert Bloch, who heads the BYOBiz program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. At Champlain, incoming freshmen can bring their businesses to school and develop them in their coursework, and students of all majors are encouraged to explore entrepreneurship.

Some argue that entrepreneurship can’t be taught, that it’s more about having a risk-taking personality and some variation of “fire in the belly.” Babson College professor Dan Isenberg, who’s been teaching it since 1986, disagrees. “Entrepreneurship is as teachable as any other complex skill,” he says. “So if you think you can teach people how to dance or write or manage, then you can teach them entrepreneurship.”

It’s not about taking risks, Isenberg says; it’s about understanding and limiting the risk and knowing how to manage cash flow and people, read a financial report, find a market, and communicate your value. Regardless of the idea, entrepreneurs need to know how business works. And real-world experience is an essential element of their education.

“Kids have to get out into the field and get their hands dirty,” he says. “In classrooms where I teach, I give people real companies to analyze; sometimes they look at real company business plans, meet with real entrepreneurs. The best way to learn about something is to try to do it. Imagine learning how to dance by just reading about it.”

There’s a lot of support for these efforts. The Massachusetts It’s All Here Campaign promotes entrepreneurship as a way to jump-start the state economy and retain more of the students who choose to attend college here. The nonprofit organization MassChallenge hosts panels and networking events at campuses around the state to bring together student entrepreneurs with would-be investors and mentors.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst, Smith, and Bay Path are among the 12 Western Massachusetts two- and four-year colleges participating in the Harold Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative, which fosters entrepreneurship on campuses through teaching, mentoring, and financial support.

Funded by Grinspoon, a West Springfield real estate developer, the program sponsors a faculty adviser on each campus who teaches and works with students on their ideas. Students compete for the foundation’s annual Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards, which provide small grants for start-ups. Since its founding in 2003, the initiative has provided more than $360,000 to 275 students in Western Massachusetts, many of whom come from disciplines besides business and finance.

“When they’re thinking about starting a business, liberal arts students often find themselves ill-equipped,” says Cari Carpenter, who runs the program. “In fact, a very good idea may never get beyond the conceptual stage because the student lacks fundamental business knowledge. By understanding basic business principles, students may develop the skills and confidence to make their ideas a reality.”

Courses can cover entrepreneurship in general or more specific business or marketing topics. At UMass Amherst, Introduction to Entrepreneurship draws more than 100 students from 30 majors. Each week, students attend a lecture on concepts like marketing, management, and business plan development. Then they retire to Rafters, an Amherst sports bar, to discuss their ideas with faculty and other entrepreneurs, many of them alumni from past years’ classes, who often stop by.

One night in early spring, Derek Lyman, 25, stopped by; he cofounded an information technology company, Dexrex, in his UMass dorm room.

“What I got out of this course was that it taught me that you can look at a problem and say, how can I create an opportunity out of it?” he says. Dexrex helps companies and individuals archive instant messages, text messages, and social media transmissions, either for legal compliance or for better organization.

Course alum Conor White-Sullivan, 21, an anthropology major, recently launched Localocracy.org, a site where registered voters in a community can discuss topics like taxes, schools, and elections, using their full names.

Sometimes there’s a relationship between a student’s major and the business idea, sometimes not. And a quick survey of these students’ businesses suggests that not all ideas are created equal. I could be wrong, but I’m just not sure about the viability of a socially responsible hookah lounge or a tattoo shop where moms might bring their kids for their first tattoos.

But some products may have legs. Two Mount Holyoke math majors enrolled in the UMass class came up with a stiletto shoe that converts from Manolo to Miss Marple with the switch of a heel. They tapped a UMass engineering student to draft the prototype and are now hunting for a partner who can figure out the material for the sole. And although this market sample is limited, every Mount Holyoke woman they’ve asked said she’d happily buy those shoes.

Last year’s Grinspoon award winners included a Smith College student who designed the Solar Car Shade, which protects cars from sunlight while also generating electricity. One of Champlain’s success stories is a dinner theater murder mystery production company started by – what else? – a criminal justice major.

Way, the Bay Path College professor who teaches entrepreneurship courses and mentors students, says psychology majors represent a big portion of the successful entrepreneurs at her school. One such alum, Amanda Rodriguez, 23, won a Grinspoon Spirit Award to help launch a DJ business in 2007. “DJ A-Rod” works as a mental health counselor by day and performs at night and on weekends; she recently added baking to her offerings after getting hooked on the reality show Ace of Cakes. In five years, she plans to have a full-time business providing DJ services and specialty cakes for events.

Rodriguez credits her psychology degree with helping her understand how to motivate a crowd and the entrepreneurship education for running the business. “I didn’t have any kind of business knowledge,” she says, “but I’ve learned that being responsible, responding to e-mails, being accountable was really important.”

Writers and artists, who often work independently, can also benefit from entrepreneurship education. Champlain offers a course called Professional Freelancing, which introduces students to the business of the creative arts. “The chances are good that anyone who works in these fields will be hanging out his own shingle,” Champlain’s Bloch says.

In some fields, entrepreneurship education is being seen as a way to help revitalize an industry. Journalism programs across the country and internationally are developing entrepreneurship courses at the graduate and undergraduate level. New-media guru Jeff Jarvis runs a graduate program in Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University of New York that provides an incubator for journalism start-ups. Graduate students at NYU’s Studio 20 program explore and develop models for Web-based journalistic enterprises.

Teachers say they see many students who are interested in creating nonprofits that have a positive social or environmental impact, a field that’s come to be called social entrepreneurship. Hampshire College has a program in this area, and several Champlain College students are working on projects around the world, including a nonprofit that builds playgrounds.

Sometimes a business becomes so successful that the student drops out to run it. That’s what happened to Champlain’s Ben Kaufman, who at the age of 20 founded Mophie, a business selling iPod accessories. The company won a best-of-show award at MacWorld in 2006, marking the beginning of the end of Kaufman’s academic career.

“We helped him get some venture capital money, and the business took off,” says Bloch, a touch chagrined. “Then he faced the problem that he’d be in class and his cellphone would ring and it would be his supplier in China.”

Even if students don’t go on to create start-ups (most won’t), and even if those start-ups collapse, they still benefit from experiences like setting goals, rebounding from failure, and having a better understanding of business in general, notes Isenberg. He cites research showing that students who take entrepreneurship courses in high school do better in their other courses and become more engaged citizens.

“When entrepreneurship education is effective, people learn how to set objectives, run experiments in the real world, try things out and see how they work,” he says. “You gain a sense of mastery, self-control, that when a problem occurs, instead of being a victim, you say, how can I turn that problem into a solution?”

And in these times, that lesson alone may be worth your tuition.

B.J. Roche teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is the editor and publisher of fiftyshift.com, a website for midlife women. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story on entrepreneurship in Sunday's Globe Magazine gave an incorrect figure for the award money the Harold Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative has provided to students in Western Massachusetts. The awards have totaled more than $360,000.

MAKING A WISH...COME TRUE Amanda Rodriguez, a mental health counselor, also runs her own business serving a broad spectrum of party people, whether it's with her cake-making skills or her DJ services. (Photograph by Matt Kalinowski) MAKING A WISH...COME TRUE
Amanda Rodriguez, a mental health counselor, also runs her own business serving a broad spectrum of party people, whether it's with her cake-making skills or her DJ services.
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