Sections Supplements

Driven to Succeed

More Students in All Disciplines are Taking an Entrepreneurial View of the World
Bob Hyers

Bob Hyers says that formalizing the entrepreneurial programming at UMass has had a marked effect on the number of students involved.

More than ever before, entrepreneurial education is in the spotlight on college campuses, both regionally and nationally. There are many reasons for this, but the overall goal is to hone in on the strengths of students in all majors and tap their entrepreneurial drive, in hopes of giving them some career options, while perhaps creating some jobs in the process.

Lauren Way, director of Entrepreneurial Programming at Bay Path College, has a succinct way of summing up the importance of teaching entrepreneurship at the collegiate level.

“The next Steve Jobs is probably going to be a computer science major, not a business major,” she says. “But he’s still going to need the characteristics and skills necessary to form the next Apple Computer.”

That’s why Bay Path and several other colleges and universities across the region and the nation on the whole are ramping up their entrepreneurship programming — in hopes of conveying to all types of students the hard and soft skills necessary to launch new ventures, introduce new products and services, and diversify the economy while filling needs in the marketplace.

It wouldn’t be bad to have the next Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, for that matter, as a member of the alumni.

Indeed, there are a number of trends colliding nationwide to create greater interest in entrepreneurship as a course of study, not just a way of thinking. Today’s students of traditional age, the Millennials, for instance, are a technology-driven, globally minded set who see no limits to what they can achieve.

Bob Hyers, professor of Engineering and director of the UMass Entrepreneurial Initiative at UMass Amherst, said this group is actually a major driver behind the evolution of entrepreneurial study on college campuses, shaping the discipline with every new idea.

“Being involved in this with the students on campus has changed how I work,” he said. “I do a lot of research, and I write my proposals differently now. I’ve gotten involved on an entrepreneurial level with two businesses, and I’m not that far ahead of the students in terms of what I’m doing and what I know. I think today’s students look at successful entrepreneurs and say, ‘there’s someone who’s not any smarter than me who’s really successful; I can do that.”

And Diane Sabato, director of the Entrepreneurial Institute at Springfield Technical Community College, said today’s students at all age points are changing the face of entrepreneurial study purely through their own drive and interests, introducing intriguing concepts and ideas that can literally change the world, in small ways and large.

“One thing that’s interesting to me is the amount of innovation and invention happening,” she said. “Students are adapting and creating product lines that lead to real entrepreneurial ventures, and that’s a great way to engage people from a lot of different disciplines. We’re drawing people from all areas, and it’s really having an impact on how we teach entrepreneurship.”

Everyone’s an Entrepreneur

Those ideas are coming from all corners, too. Way said the national model for entrepreneurship training is gradually becoming a comprehensive one that spreads across all majors and departments on campuses offering such course tracks.

“The model casts the net wide with programs that are open to everyone,” she said, noting that Bay Path offers an elevator-pitch contest, entrepreneurial summits, a lecture series, and other events that are open to all students. “So many fields play into entrepreneurship; the trend is to introduce it to non-business majors so they can take their skills to new levels and be innovative within their field.”

Hyers said there are two such all-encompassing programs on the UMass campus that support entrepreneurship: the Isenberg School of Management and the UMass Entrepreneurial Initiative, which grew out of a student organization called the Entre Club.

The club has been on campus for 10 years, but reorganized last year to serve as a complement to a for-credit course and a series of networking and business-planning activities.

“The big driver behind that was increasing the level of engagement with the students,” said Hyers. “To strengthen the value proposition of entrepreneurial activities on campus, we went from just a club to a class — offering credit helps the students justify their time. We also set some goals for the students to be more competitive in contests like the Technology Innovation Challenge, and to focus on the early stages of starting a business. It’s very applied, and the businesses are very diverse.”

Since the evolution of the Entre Club to a more formal entity at UMass, students have returned some impressive results. Two years ago, involved students produced seven active companies; this year, that number has risen to 47. These ventures are nothing to sneeze at, either. One, Condition Engineering, founded by doctoral student Alaina Hanton, introduced an engineering breakthrough that could help alert communities to catastrophes, while another, Brian Mullins Therapeutic Systems, is a vest that offers the equivalent of ‘mechanical hugs’ for children with autism, a technique that allows them to feel more secure and in control.

“Even though the businesses themselves are so different, the entrepreneurs are finding that they have more in common than not,” said Hyers. “Through the conversations they have, the people with the music magazine are seeing the similarities their company has to the Web startup. All of the students see their businesses as an opportunity to make a difference, and they’re focused on making the world better.”

Positive Signs

It can be a formidable task for colleges and universities to create this synthesis across a diverse set of academic departments. “We might need to create not just one umbrella of programs for all students, but multiple umbrellas,” said Way. “It’s about cultivating an entrepreneurial attitude, one that includes honesty, innovation, and an ability to ‘bend’ a company to accommodate the changing needs of the population.”

But she added that the demand to offer this kind of instruction exists, and is growing due to a number of variables in addition to the entrepreneurial-mindedness of today’s younger set.

Recent studies of entry-level salary ranges for students who studied entrepreneurship in college, for instance, don’t hurt the discipline’s reputation much.

“Looking at programs nationwide, the trend is a high average starting salary for entrepreneurship graduates, so that’s a big draw,” she said. “And one of the main reasons it’s becoming such a trend now is that our economy, as we know, is not looking good. The days of staying with one company for security are gone.”

However, other studies suggest that entrepreneurship — whether it’s inventing, starting a business, offering a service, or merely applying entrepreneurial skills within a larger company — is gaining acceptance for other reasons; among them, a failure to discriminate.

“There’s a lifespan of ages being represented,” Way began. “There are a lot of different things coming together, and people are coming at it from different sides. Some want new careers, some are looking for new ventures for economic reasons, others want to fill a need and serve humanity.”

In addition, entrepreneurs of all ethnicities and backgrounds are making their mark on the U.S. business landscape. According to a study performed at Babson College, Black Americans are 50% more likely than others to start a business. The Small Business Advancement National Center (SBANC) reports that Latinos are the fastest-growing entrepreneurial segment, and according to the Center for Women’s Research (CFWR), 40% of all privately held companies are owned or headed by women, and woman-owned businesses are more likely than all others to stay in business for five years or more.

There’s also no general ‘type’ of person who is more likely to succeed as an entrepreneur, said Way.

“There are some born entrepreneurs, and others need to be encouraged,” she said. “There are some students who are naturally inclined to ‘just do it,’ and others who want to approach it in a scholarly way.”

Courses of Action

There are several things happening on college campuses in the region to cater to this broad group of students, and to promote entrepreneurship in other areas, including high schools.

Sabato said there’s a movement afoot both nationally and on the STCC campus to create a culture of entrepreneurship that extends to all age groups — beginning with children. The Entrepreneurial Institute actually begins reaching out to futurepreneurs as kindergartners, and starts guiding students through the business-owning process as early as grade school.

“Developing a lifelong educational model for entrepreneurship is a trend we’re seeing nationally,” she said. “When the program started, we saw the need to raise awareness that entrepreneurship is a legitimate program of study, regardless of the vocational specialty someone is pursuing.”

Sabato explained that elementary-school students receive entrepreneurial training, such as financial and workplace literacy lessons, through a variety of means, depending on their grade level. Older students take trips to New York City’s wholesale district to learn about purchasing, for example, after they’ve already toured the STCC institute, its business incubator, and its Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame. For the younger students, there’s something called ‘Play-Doh Economics.’

“High school students start their own actual businesses and run them,” said Sabato, noting that, during the experience, the students are treated much like any business owner, drafting their own business plans and receiving invitations to networking events, for instance. “Essentially, we’re providing entrepreneurial education and experiential learning opportunities early on.”

Sabato added that STCC’s entrepreneurial programming for high-school students began more than a decade ago as the YES (Young Entrepreneurs Society) program, starting with four area high schools and expanding to work with more than 25 today. She agreed that entrepreneurship is receiving more attention of late than ever before, and having a program in place from which to build is prompting the entrepreneurial institute to keep a close eye on emerging trends, in order to capitalize on that strong base.

“I think that we’re fortunate to have a seasoned program. We’ve watched it evolve to include more students every year, and we’ve seen awareness increase at all ages,” said Sabato. “The openness to study entrepreneurship has increased as well. There’s always been a strong student demand, but we’re seeing students at all grade levels and in all kinds of circumstances. Some people have been laid off; others just know what they want to be when they grow up.”

The Power to Fail

Once they reach college, however, there are a few constants that students can expect in their academic preparation, though the entrepreneurial field is one that is ever-evolving.

The first is a strong emphasis on practical application. Way said Bay Path offers case studies of local companies, with the participation of its principals, for students studying entrepreneurship — whether as a major of study or as a complement to a different major.

“Generally, we have business owners, managers, and CEOs come to our students with a problem, so the students can help address their issues,” she explained. “They problem-solve and give a presentation, and in some cases, there’s hard advice to be given.”

That’s a prime example, Way noted, of having students ‘learn by doing’ on a very real level. There’s the chance, she said, that a business owner might not like the suggestions the students suggest, and ask them to tweak the model or dismiss it altogether.

It’s a Good Thing

But in one way, there’s some success in that.

“We encourage them to move forward with these projects, as well as their own micro-businesses, without knowing everything first, so they see what they don’t know,” said Way. “Things like product development, manufacturing, inventory, accounting — you can’t learn those things in a class in a month. Failure is a big trend in entrepreneurship, and to some it’s even a badge of honor in the field.”

Way went so far as to muse that, in the future, she may pursue setting her students up to fail to drive this reality home.

“Learning how to fail is one part of learning how to succeed,” she said. “I would like to find a way to do this now, in the controlled, college environment, to give them a chance to process their own reactions and learn how to bounce back.”

On that note, Way cited another well-known entrepreneur as a perfect example of one who’s mastered this skill.

“We all know Martha Stewart had failed once or twice, but no one knows how to make a comeback like her,” she said. “And Martha Stewart didn’t even go to business school.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *