Entrepreneurs Should Create A Degree – Not Buy One Off The Rack


A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

Entrepreneurs create their own jobs, why shouldn’t they also create their own degrees?

As described in Should Millennial Entrepreneurs Skip College?, most young entrepreneurs benefit greatly from the college experience. However, off-the-shelf majors are typically not suited to the eclectic skills required to succeed in the startup world.

In my role as a Professor of Practice within UC Santa Barbara’s entrepreneurial Technology Management Program (TMP), I have worked with my students, led by Randall Dubois, to craft an Individual Major that accommodates the needs of millennial entrepreneurs. I remind my entrepreneurial students that the TMP was begun by students, who petitioned the Dean to add entrepreneurial subject matter to their engineering coursework.

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Custom Wharton Degree

When I arrived at Wharton many moons ago, I was told that all first-year students take the same set of Core classes. Like a sheepeople, I dutifully signed up for the required classes. Within a week, I was bored out of my mind. The material was essentially a rehash of my four years of undergrad business training. Econ is econ, finance is finance and, quite unfortunately, accounting is accounting.

When my second semester rolled around, I was done with curriculum deja vu. Yet I was told by everyone, Professors, Advisors and students alike, that there was “no way” I could get out of taking my remaining Core classes. I took this as a challenge and approached the Dean with several well-rehearsed arguments, determined to overcome his objections.

To my surprise, when I told the Dean that I was learning nothing from the Core courses, he simply asked me what I wanted to take. I handed him my class enrollment form, which he quickly scanned, murmured something unintelligible and signed. As I turned away, somewhat shocked with the ease with which I had customized my curriculum, he stopped me and asked, “I can understand why you want to take Squash, but can I ask why you are enrolling in Farsi?”

By avoiding an entire semester of Core classes (one fourth of my entire Wharton education), I was able to take every single entrepreneurial course offered by the University, while simultaneously earning a Minor Degree in drinking beer and playing poker. Today’s millennials should similarly avoid one-size-fits all degrees and take proactive control of their curriculums.

Proposed Startup Curriculum

When Randall approached the University to create an Individual Major, he was told that only two students had created their own degree in the past 15-years. Two students out of approximately 75,000 graduates. Clearly the University prefers that students buy their degrees off the shelf, rather than customizing one to fit their individual needs.

When trying to cobble together a startup degree, consider the following categories of classes. It is unlikely each of them will be offered at your school, but this list serves as a general guideline for the types of classes you should seek.

I have included UCSB’s catalog course numbers in the event a student is interested in learning more about a particular class. Note that I have not included the TMP courses, which are analogous to the classes offered by most business programs (e.g., marketing, finance, sales, etc.). This list is intended to cover non-obvious courses relevant to entrepreneurs.


Pursue courses that encompass group dynamics, presentation skills, leadership and seeking understanding and compromise in contentious situations.

Comm 106      Small Group Communication

Comm 120      Interviewing Theory and Practice

Comm 138      Advertising Literacy

Comm 166      Marketing Communication

Economics / Negotiations / Accounting

Seek practical classes and avoid theoretical economic theory courses. Become fluent in the language of business by taking enough accounting classes such that you can interpret financial statements and create pro forma projections. In addition, a solid understanding of business law and the ability to effectively negotiate on behalf of your startup are fundamental startup skills.

Econ 3A          Financial Accounting

Econ 3B          Financial Accounting

Econ 118         Financial Accounting Analysis and Planning

Econ 171         Introduction to Game Theory

Econ 174         Negotiations

Econ 189         Business Law and Ethics in Accounting


Gain enough of an understanding of statistics that you can quantify risks and the probabilities of potential outcomes.

Pstat 173         Risk Theory

Computer Science

Contrary to conventional wisdom, success as a millennial entrepreneur does not require that you become proficient in writing commercial-quality software code. However, understanding the various languages, challenges and approaches to coding will help you communicate with and manage your startup’s technical team.

Cmpsc 8          Introduction to Computer Science

Cmptgcs 1A    Computer Programming and Organization I

Cmptcgs 1B    Computer Programming and Organization II

Psychology / Sociology

Focus on psychology classes that explore influence and persuasion, how the mind works and how people form opinions and learn. Sociology courses that discuss historical and future macro trends, as well as societal and organizational dynamics, are also worthy of exploration.

Psy 128           Human Thinking and Problem Solving

Psy 141           Evaluation, Attitudes, and Persuasion

Psy 148           The Psychology of Self

Psy 156           Multimedia Learning

Psy 140           Social Influence

Soc 134F         The Future of Globalization: Global Change, Futurology & Social Sciences

Soc 167           The Structure and Dynamics of Organizations


Pursue classes that contemplate how logic, rationality, critical thinking and ethics impact decision making. Also consider courses that delve into organizational ethics.

Phil 3   Critical Thinking

Phil 4   Introduction to Ethics

Writing / English / Public Speaking

Effective communication skills, both written and verbal, are essentially to entrepreneurial success. If your school does not offer courses in public speaking, join a local chapter of Toastmasters and volunteer to give presentations when working on group projects.

Writ 105PS     Writing for Public Speaking

Writ 107B       Business and Administrative Writing

Writ 107P       Writing for Public Relations

Writ 157A/B   Seminar in Business Communication

The above courses should be considered a general guide. In many cases, it might make sense to simply audit them, rather than enrolling for a grade. This will allow you to focus on the aspects of the course that are relevant to your interests, without forcing you to study gratuitous facts. Ultimately, don’t be a sheepeople. Perform an honest self-assessment and craft a curriculum that will best serve your unique proclivities and capabilities.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I’ll never tweet about politics or that killer burrito I am about to devour – just startup stuff.

Photo Credit: Photo/The Lima News, Gavin Jackson

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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