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The Wrong Way to Judge an Entrepreneurship Course


The Wrong Way to Judge an Entrepreneurship Course

Photograph by Sam Edwards/Gallery Stock

Entrepreneurship programs are ubiquitous at business schools. So how do you measure the course designed to instill the startup spirit? Do you count the number of businesses launched by the school’s recent graduates? Is it as simple as tallying the money grads are able to raise? Or perhaps some combination of the two?

The trouble with those approaches is that they miss a broader and more important issue: Entrepreneurship can be like a virus—incubation rates vary. We need to understand what happens not just in the months after students leave school, but over the course of their lives and careers.

There are two types of learning that students experience when they opt for an entrepreneurship education: technical knowledge and self-belief. The technical knowledge is the obvious stuff: product development, building a team, learning from customers, refining business models, and raising capital. Some students arrive at business school with the clear objective of starting their own business. They recognize that learning from the successes and failures of those who have gone before, combined with relevant management and financial theory, will give them a leg up when they see the right opportunity.

These are often the people who will launch a new enterprise soon after graduation. Serial entrepreneurs such as Groupon’s (GRPN) co-founder Brad Keywell (Michigan BBA ’91) and Launchpad LA co-founder and venture capitalist Adam Lilling (Michigan BBA ’92) are notable examples.

Other students enter business school because they don’t know what they want to do next. They may have lots of technical skills but not know what to do with them. Clearly, the knowledge they acquire about finance and leadership will be of value, but for them it’s often more about transforming how they see themselves. Once someone realizes that entrepreneurs aren’t special, aren’t born that way, aren’t the smartest in the room, it occurs to them that they can be an entrepreneur, too. That’s the first sign that the virus has taken hold. Shasta Venture co-founder Ravi Mohan (Michigan MBA ’96) and Zoup! co-founder Eric Ersher (Michigan BBA ’86) plugged their business-management talent into startups a few years after earning their degrees and powered them down the road to success.

So how do we measure success? The right answer is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. It’s difficult to identify the top programs, because if you believe that entrepreneurs incubate at different rates, you have to follow the population for a long time. You have to find out when they start a business, and you need to keep track of how they’re doing. Social media has made that kind of tracking easier, but it’s still tough. Even though entrepreneurship programs have been around for decades, tracking graduates long-term takes effort and dedication. Counting startups among newly minted grads is much easier.

I believe the core question of what makes an entrepreneurial learning experience great has less to do with what is taught and more to do with how programs are structured. We each have preferred learning styles, but it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t benefit from learning by doing. Start something. Try something. Fail a bit. Try again. Fail some more. Keep learning. This repetition throughout the venture creation process is ultimately what sets great entrepreneurship programs apart.

An action-based learning program lets latent entrepreneurs shape new ventures. They get a chance to feel the rush, the thrill, and the frustration of trying to make and sell something to people who might rather hang on to their hard-earned dollars. Each small success leads to another, and so begins that germ of self-belief. The little voice that says, “I can do this, too.” And, hopefully, one day they will.

Forget the numbers, the counting, and the statistics. Instead, look for signs that the entrepreneurship virus is developing in students. Once it takes hold, it will breed a lifetime of knowledge and opportunity.

Thornhill is the Executive Director of the University of Michigan’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies. He also serves as the Eugene Applebaum Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at the Ross School of Business and the Managing Director of the Zell Lurie Commercialization Fund.

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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