Economic Development

Not All Entrepreneurs Drop Out of College

Universities are the missing link in entrepreneurship.

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that two-thirds of the public believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor. As much as we’ve talked about the 99 percent this winter, little ink has been spilled about what kinds of entrepreneurial efforts might actually enable economic mobility. But US policy makers and their European counterparts are increasingly viewing entrepreneurship as one of the possible solutions to our current economic ills, as evidenced by the creation of the European Institute for Innovation and Technology and the White House’s StartUp America Partnership last year. Both aim to spur innovation and entrepreneurship.

A remarkable convergence is emerging: as our economies falter, policymakers are embracing entrepreneurship as a potential solution, and the future of our workforce—the young—are eager to get on board. But how will they get there?

Universities are the missing link in entrepreneurship. We are uniquely suited to inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs and filling the sorely needed entrepreneurial pipeline with talented young visionaries eager to impact the world. Universities have access to Millennials at a very crucial time in their lives, a time in which the knowledge and experiences imparted to them can have far-reaching and, in some cases, life-altering effects.

The demand is there. A Kauffman study conducted during November’s entrepreneurship week found that more than half of Millennials are eager to start their own venture. Fifty-four percent of the nation's Millennials either want to start a business or already have started one. “Millennials recognize,” says Carl Shramm, former president and CEO of Kauffman Foundation, “that entrepreneurship is the key to reviving the economy." The study also revealed that while lack of mentorship and access to capital are mentioned as impediments to starting a business, so is the lack of entrepreneurship education.

Entrepreneur Ricardo Levy attests that the key attributes of successful entrepreneurs include being visionary, being passionate, and being open to risk. Many college students posses all three and are chomping at the bit to apply them in the “real world.”

Imagination flourishes in creative environments and those that foster communication across thematic boundaries. Like lights attracting congregating mosquitoes on hot summer nights, universities are hotbeds for creative interdisciplinary exchanges. A motley of Princeton undergraduate and graduate students from the sciences, finance, sociology, and engineering, for example, joined forces to create an enterprise focused on converting waste to methane in a Karachi landfill. Failure during the project implementation proved to be a valuable learning experience. Some of the students in the initial team are now working on their next entrepreneurial venture, equipped with the important insights that come from stumbling and beginning again.

What better place than a university to develop and foster entrepreneurial dreams at limited risk? Unlike many corporate cultures in which individuals remain exclusively focused on specific tasks, interdisciplinary thinking and team collaborations are not at all anomalies at universities. Interdisciplinary teams form readily as subject lines become hazy and as cross-disciplinary dialogue is encouraged. University settings abound with unique knowledge, resources, vibrant peers, entrepreneurial courses, competitions, co-working spaces, and experiential learning opportunities.

Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, developed her plan to recruit outstanding recent college graduates to teach for two years in America’s neediest urban and rural schools through her senior thesis work at Princeton. Today, Teach for America is widely recognized as one of the most successful social enterprises ever created. Over the last five years alone, 17,500 teachers were recruited into the program.

You may be thinking, aren’t many of the world’s most idealized entrepreneurs college dropouts? Indeed. This past spring, PayPal founder Peter Thiel announced his “Twenty Under Twenty” fellowship, which awarded $100,000 to 24 exceptionally talented young entrepreneurs under the age of 20 who committed to suspend their college education for two years to develop their ventures. It created a media frenzy, but ultimately, Thiel’s fellowship applies to a select group of exceptionally talented entrepreneurs. For the Mozarts of entrepreneurship, Thiel’s program is immensely valuable and certainly adds to the larger entrepreneurial eco-system. However, for the majority of budding entrepreneurs, a university education offers the best way to foster entrepreneurial ambition.

Given the economic crisis and the entrepreneurial renaissance, it would be irresponsible for universities not to step up to the plate. We can provide frameworks to foster entrepreneurship that support students when they are most open to new ideas, passionate about their beliefs, and interested in shaping the world.

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  • I agree, it doesn’t mean that all successful businessman today has the same future with
    aspiring young businessman. We had all different story in our life.

  • Very true and right on target

  • BY Courtney Martin

    ON February 2, 2012 01:52 PM

    I remember my own college experience as a time of neverending internships outside of the university. It’s fascinating to think about the ways in which this framing could create a whole new mindset for college students to collaborate with one another to create entrepreneurial projects in the surrounding neighborhoods rather than spending the semester making copies and wishing they could actually do something of impact. Brava!

  • Harriet Washington's avatar

    BY Harriet Washington

    ON February 2, 2012 11:36 PM

    Thank you for this counterintuitive and revelatory article.

  • Rick Cherwitz's avatar

    BY Rick Cherwitz

    ON February 3, 2012 04:35 AM

    The entrepreneurial approach to education advocated by this author resonates with UT’s Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE) and philosophy:

    “Intellectual Entrepreneurship is premised on the belief that intellect is not limited to the academy and entrepreneurship is not restricted to or synonymous with business. Entrepreneurship is a process of cultural innovation. While the creation of material wealth is one expression of entrepreneurship, at a more profound level entrepreneurship is an attitude
    for engaging the world. Intellectual entrepreneurs, both inside and outside universities, take risks and seize opportunities, discover and create knowledge, innovate, collaborate and solve problems in any number of social realms: corporate, non-profit, government, and education.

    Intellectual Entrepreneurship includes a readiness to seek out opportunities, undertake the responsibility associated with each and tolerate the uncertainty that comes with initiating genuine innovation.  Intellectual Entrepreneurship changes the model and metaphor of higher education from one of “apprenticeship-certification-?entitlement” to one of “discovery-ownership-accountab?ility.”

  • Rick Cherwitz's avatar

    BY Rick Cherwitz

    ON February 4, 2012 05:07 AM

    Readers might find these articles interesting:

    Richard Cherwitz and Charlotte Sullivan, “Intellectual Entrepreneurship: Vision for Graduate Education,” Change, November/December, 2002.

    Cherwitz, Richard and Darwin, Thomas. “Crisis as Opportunity: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Productivity in Higher Education.” Enhancing Productivity in Higher Education Judith E. Miller and James Groccia, Eds (Anker Publishing Company), 2005.

    Hildebrand, David. “Academics Are Intellectual Entrepreneurs.” Peer Review, Spring 2005.

    Cherwitz, Richard and Beckman, Gary. “Re-envisioning the Arts Ph.D.: Intellectual Entrepreneurship and the Intellectual Arts Leader.” Arts Education Policy Review, 107:4 (2006), 13-20. 

    Gary Beckman and Richard Cherwitz, Richard, “Intellectual Entrepreneurship: An Authentic Foundation for Higher Education Reform,” Planning for Higher Education, 37:4 (July-September, 2009), 27-36.

  • Mike Anderson's avatar

    BY Mike Anderson

    ON February 12, 2012 05:33 PM

    I completely agree. As a college student myself, I wish there was more education on entrepreneurship. It seems to me that following that career path is treated as something people happen to stumble upon or chooses to do in addition to their “real” job. If it were treated as a real profession, more educational institutions would incorporate it in their curriculum.

    There is a small program at my school that offers help to those who have an interest in starting their own business, but it is just a small office hidden in the back of some academic building. It actually took me a few years to realize it even existed. It is a great asset to students, yet hardly any of them even know it exists.

    I believe that “fifty-four percent of the nation’s Millennials want to start a business or already have started one,” it is just unfortunate that most do not because they just do not know how to go about doing it. I have many college friends who have great business ideas, but are too afraid of the risks and the additional energy needed to develop it properly. If students were more educated on the process, they would not be so reluctant to take the risk.

  • Catherine Bitter's avatar

    BY Catherine Bitter

    ON February 13, 2012 09:35 AM

    I hope many universities take this to heart and identify more opportunities for students to think creatively and independently, and to see the world outside of the university through internships at start-up companies, etc.  It’s definitely time for universities to take on this challenge and create a new generation of entrepreneurs.  Very insightful article!

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