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Is Entrepreneurship Really Being Taught at Boston Universities?

Posted by Alex Pearlman  September 6, 2011 04:00 PM

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3042791963_b342ec8872.jpg Mark Zuckerberg created the world's most influential social network. Amar Bose founded an industry-changing audio corporation. And Robert Kraft made enough money off a paper business to buy the New England Patriots and turn them into a world-class NFL franchise.

What do all these people have in common? Sure they're all billionaires with ties to Boston, but they're also all entrepreneurs.

Of course, they must have other things in common as well. Were they born to be entrepreneurs? Fated to make billions? Could someone else have done what they did, or was their vision and dedication to success coded deep within?

Many of the undergraduate colleges in the Greater Boston area would say no. Or at least, their entrepreneurship programs would.

This morning, on campuses all over New England and across the nation, students were buying books, sharpening their pencils, charging up their iPads, and preparing to sit down in classrooms where all they'll discuss for the next few months is how to be an entrepreneur. In many cases, they'll be examining the very steps these famous entrepreneurs took to get where they are today.

As a course of study, entrepreneurship is red hot among undergraduates and business school students alike. "In the U.S., approximately 2,200 entrepreneurship courses are offered at 1,600 colleges and universities," said Candida Brush, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Franklin W. Olin Chair in Entrepreneurship at Babson College. "More than 200 colleges and universities have majors and concentrations in entrepreneurship."

Babson, located outside Boston proper, between Wellesley and Needham, is by far the undisputed authority when it comes to teaching entrepreneurship, and not just regionally. The U.S. News and World Report ranked its business school as the top entrepreneurship program for the 18th consecutive year this summer.

"Research in entrepreneurship has come a long way, past [the] trait psychology popular in the 1960s that suggested entrepreneurs were risk-taking, achievement-oriented, heroic individuals," says Brush. "Instead, more than 20 years of research shows that it is behavioral and cognitive psychology that predicts success, not traits. In other words, entrepreneurs are not 'born' that way."

It's not just the academic world that's touting entrepreneurship's rise as a course of study.

"You don't have to be born an entrepreneur to be great. You can learn it," says Jeff Bussgang, a Boston-area venture capitalist and the author of the 2010 book Mastering the VC Game, an inside look at the high-stakes world of venture capital. It's the stuff the young entrepreneurs are all dreaming of. Bussgang, a general partner at the local firm Flybridge Capital, spoke with me about his thoughts on entrepreneurship last year when the book came out.

But is school really the right venue for teaching entrepreneurship? What about all those entrepreneurs who quit school and succeed anyway? Zuckerberg, the young founder of Facebook, famously dropped out of Harvard University once he had what he needed to pursue his passion. Bill Gates did the same thing to start Microsoft. If these guys didn't need Harvard to become billionaires, is anyone really learning anything in college that will make them a better entrepreneur?

Matt Lauzon says yes. The 26 year old is the founder and CEO of Gemvara, a Boston-based startup that's shaking the jewelry industry to the core. The company, which sells fully customized fine jewelry online, already employs over 50 people here in Boston and boasts an average sale of $1,000 per checkout. Lauzon attended Babson, where he started Gemvara as an undergrad.

"Babson gives you the framework and skills to identify and tackle opportunities effectively. There's a heavy focus on learning the fundamentals in a practical way," he says, citing the importance of case studies and team-based projects in Babson's curriculum.

Lauzon also received $5,000 from a Babson alum who asked for nothing except a promise to return the favor some day for another promising young undergrad.

But before we set out to build the next army of Lauzons, Zuckerbergs and Henry Fords, let's not be unreasonable about the expectations we're setting for the young entrepreneurs out there doing their homework in a rush to get to class. Studying entrepreneurship can teach you what's worked and what's working. It can give you insight into what might work and give you the tools to grow. It can even help you find funding and good partners.

But it will likely take more than those things to make you great. You'll need the right people around you to make that happen. The team, after all, is the biggest key to the success of an early-stage startup. This fact is, perhaps above all else, the golden rule of entrepreneurship.

Take for example, the colleagues Lauzon recruited from his alma mater -- his peers. They are individuals chosen to work at Gemvara because of their vision for the business and its future. They brought things to the table nobody else could by virtue of their close proximity to the company in its most nascent phases, and now they are employees who add value to the business as it grows. These Gemvarians are not just college buddies horsing around; they are entrepreneurs supporting entrepreneurship.

For Lauzon and others like him, college is a place where someone with a great business idea can build a team to execute it. Chances are, if you're toting an old-school understanding of the super-successful, you probably believe an entrepreneurial spirit is something with which people are born. That's okay. You're not alone. It's an idea that's hard to refute, especially when so many fail while so few flourish in the world of new business venturing.

Even Lauzon can't argue. "I believe many of the skills required can be taught. Babson is evidence of that," he said. "But I do think there's something about entrepreneurs that probably needs to be in your DNA."

Even if not everyone can be taught to be the next billionaire entrepreneur, it seems the course of study is at least good for weeding out those with the most promise and teaching those not yet ready to launch their own ventures how to operate effectively in the business world as we know it. No matter how you look at it, that's something that can't be bad for Boston's students.

Photo by thinkpublic (Flickr)

By Kyle Psaty -- I edit The PerkStreet Blog, a daily source of fun and funny content about money and personal finance. I work every day to help other Gen Yers make sense of their money so they can find happiness and financial security in this crazy world. Follow me on Twitter @KylePs80

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