Captivating Courses: Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught in the Classroom?

A big question that has been debated among business professionals and academic institutions is whether the skills needed to successfully build, launch, and run a startup can be taught. This Forbes article (published 6/19/2014), discusses several characteristics that define successful entrepreneurs. George Deeb, the author, gives his opinion on whether these characteristics are skills that entrepreneurs are most likely taught or born with. While the seven skills he lists are pertinent, there is one major concept that has been neglected: experience as an entrepreneur. Seasoned investors have been known to invest only in projects managed by entrepreneurs who have previously failed. Deeb does list “Domain Experience In The Industry”, but this is not necessarily the experience of building a business plan, fundraising and pitching to venture capitalists, taking on multiple roles, building a cohesive team, etc. So how can you teach experience in an academic setting?

              The Professional Science Master’s Program at Rutgers University addresses this question quite aggressively. Taking advice from current industry employers, the program was designed to promote “experiential learning.” Almost every class in the curriculum integrates group work and presentations. This allows students to learn the concept of joint liability in a work setting first hand. It also encourages an increase in confidence in the work environment, leading to more successful communication.

              To earn a Master of Business and Science, all students must complete the Capstone course focused on Science and Technology Management (16:137:600 Science and Technology Management Capstone). The course is taught by Professor Thomas A. Bryant, PhD. The course puts students through the rigorous process of commercializing promising technologies. The course begins with an assignment to identify patents that describe technologies that students find most interesting. This pool is narrowed down into the technologies that have the most commercial value. Students then go through a bidding process to select the technology that they prefer to build their business around. This process forms the groups that will spend the semester writing a business plan for their chosen technology. The semester culminates in a Venture Forum, where these groups pitch their business plans as companies to a panel of seasoned industry professionals with experience in business ventures.

 

              This course definitely expects students to put a lot of time and hard work into their projects. “This was the biggest project I’ve ever faced in an academic setting. It was a lot of work, much more than other courses,” said Charlie Collick, a User Experience Design MBS student expecting to graduate in October ‘15. “But,” he added, “it is one of the most business-ready courses offered by the MBS program. It did a great job of putting students in touch with the current state of their industry of focus.” Although the large workload may seem like a burden from the student’s perspective, the truth is that creating a start-up consumes much more effort than anyone expects. “We created lengthy business plans, but also distilled them into a ten-minute pitch designed to pique the interest of angel investors,” testified Brittany Greene, a Drug Discovery & Development MBS graduate, “This is a valuable skill set that can be broadly applied to many different types of presentations. Investors and upper management alike do not want to see lengthy, text-laden slides! They want the main point in a short and effective presentation, but of course, with the work and research done to answer questions that arise.” Stephen Carter, a Personal Care MBS graduate says, “Your success in the course depends on how much effort you put into it, which is a realistic experience. I honestly didn’t know how to write a business plan before, but now I feel more confident if the opportunity arises. What I valued the most from the course was learning how imperative it is to know your audience and how investors think.” This is a major point of focus throughout the semester. Professor Bryant ingeniously assigns tasks from the investor’s point of view so that students understand what investors are looking for. With this perspective in mind, you can tailor a presentation that highlights why your project is an attractive investment opportunity.

              The course also continues to benefit students after completing the semester. “The business plan my group created is something I am very proud of,” Sintia Krizman, a Biotechnology & Genomics MBS graduate, explains. “It garnered much interest during interviews because it was unique. It got interviewers to ask questions and I was able to tell them about how we took this project from beginning to end, learning every step along the way.” The project truly puts you in the mindset of a small business, another unique point of view in the classroom. Greene states, “In many business classes, the focus is on the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in established, medium to large firms. Capstone presents students with the opportunity to select promising intellectual property and envision a plan to turn it into a start-up company.” She goes on saying, “Another valuable skill learned in Capstone is management of relationships & group dynamics. With so much work to be done, it was impossible for one person to do it all. We had to delegate responsibility, talk regularly about our progress & end goal, and help each other out when unexpected set backs occurred.” This is a desirable experience to have when entering a leadership/managerial role in the work environment. Understanding how to approach less than ideal situations with composure and without being overwhelmed can avert a crisis and instill trust from coworkers.

              It’s clear that the Capstone course puts students through a rigorous semester. However, the question remains: Can entrepreneurship be taught in the classroom? Personally, I had no interest in entrepreneurship or being a part of a start-up when I entered the MBS program. I felt it was too risky and had absolutely no desire to be a part of it. However, after taking the Capstone course, completing an internship at a start-up, and graduating with my MBS degree, it has become part of my long-term goals. I now understand that my aversion was caused by the fact that I was not educated on entrepreneurship. I see it as an attractive option for those who are seeking to apply their creativity to create science and technology companies that provide a solution to problem in society.

And whether the entrepreneurial skills have been instilled in the classroom setting has yet to be seen! The MBS program at Rutgers is still very young and full of potential. You’ll just have to stay tuned to see whether our graduates are successful in creating successful business ventures.


Image: Venture Forum on May 5-6, 2015 for the Capstone Course