A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
A friend recently asked me to give his startup-minded daughter some advice to help her vet undergraduate entrepreneurial programs.
As I thought about the characteristics that comprise a great program, I identified five criteria that a prospective entrepreneurial student can use to evaluate the efficacy of a collegiate entrepreneur curriculum.
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5 Criteria To Assess An Undergraduate Entrepreneurial Program
In my role as a Professor of Practice within UC Santa Barbara’s entrepreneurial Technology Management Program (TMP), I have worked with approximately 8,000 students over a ten year period. I have also interacted with a number of excellent startup programs, most notably those Cal Poly’s Center For Innovation And Entrepreneurship and SDSU’s Lavin Entrepreneurship Center. Through these student and faculty interactions, I have gathered empirical (but non-scientific), first-hand evidence of the factors that contribute to a world-class undergraduate entrepreneurial program.
- Practitioners, Not Professors – classes should be taught by people who have fought hand-to-hand combat in the startup trenches
When I was an MBA student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, I was frustrated that most of the Professors in the Entrepreneurship Department had never been entrepreneurs. I found it difficult to translate their theoretical and academic lectures into actionable advice.
Ask: What percentage of the startup-oriented classes are taught by accomplished entrepreneurs?
- Launchpad For Real Businesses – the institution should have a track record of launching successful businesses. In the past few years, colleges have been publishing the number of businesses which they have played an active role in launching. Additionally, independent organizations, such as Pitchbook, compile annual lists of the number of VC-backed companies launched at US Universities.
Note: due to the founders’ relative lack of experience, most student enterprises do not qualify for venture capital. Thus, cast your research net beyond VC-backed companies to fully understand a school’s ability to foster viable businesses. Also, be sure to evaluate the veracity of the startup alumni network – look for examples in which alumni assisted startups as advisors, investors, etc.
Ask: How many businesses were started in the past five years by students, alumni and/or professors? How much Angel and institutional money did they collectively raise? Are funds available to invest in student businesses? Are facilities available to students post-graduation to incubate their businesses?
- Graduate Programs – the school should be affiliated with strong, technical graduate schools because astounding business ideas generally originate from engineers, scientists and life sciences students. Note: no bonus points should be given for an MBA program, as MBA’s seldom generate great business ideas.
Ask: How many patents were filed by students and faculty during each of the past five years? How active (and helpful) is the technology transfer office, as measured by the number of patents licensed by alumni and students annually.
- Dogma Index – the university should make it reasonably easy for entrepreneurial students to create a degree that fits their specific interests.
The typical cable viewer has nearly 200 choices, but only watches an average of 17-stations. As noted in, Entrepreneurs Should Create A Degree, many universities deploy the cable industry’s business model. Entrepreneurs who are in a hurry to launch their ventures question why they have to pay for (and attend) classes that have questionable applicability to their startup future.
Ask: How many entrepreneurial students have crafted their own degree in the past five years? What is the process required to create a custom degree?
- Experiential Reality – the entrepreneurial curriculum should require students to practice startup skills outside of the classroom.
Entrepreneurship acumen is acquired in a fashion similar to athletic skills – experientially. You can read books, watch videos and talk with experts about how to hit a baseball, kick a soccer ball or serve a volleyball, but until you get on the field or court, you will never master the game.
Ask: What hands-on activities are incorporated into the entrepreneurial curriculum? Is there a venture competition with cash prizes? Also, contact recent graduates and ask them which exercises and assignments were the most transferable to their startup careers.
College serves many purposes beyond simply equipping young people for the startup world. However, Universities that purport to have an entrepreneurial program are remiss if they do not provide a pragmatic curriculum that hones real-world skills students can use to run their ventures.
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