Undergraduate students in assistant professor Richard Linowes Global… (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital…)
Dean David Thomas, who took the helm of Georgetown University’s school of business in August, has been making the rounds lately pitching prospective donors on a plan to raise $50,000 for what he describes as a university “seed fund.”
The fresh money won’t be used to bankroll fledgling student ventures or faculty’s groundbreaking research ideas; in fact it won’t even stay in the business school for very long. The money is to be distributed to professors in other departments who design courses rooted in entrepreneurship.
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.