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John Dearborn

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What If Universities Recruited Entrepreneurs Like They Recruited Athletes?

Posted: 01/27/2012 1:38 pm

Nearly half of American youth between ages 8 and 24 are enthusiastic about starting a business, or have already have started one, according to a Harris poll done for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in 2010.

What if big schools developed endowments to recruit entrepreneurship students? In the 2006/2007 school year alone, The University of Tennessee spent $2 million to recruit athletes. Certainly, college athletes can generate a lot of excitement - and a lot of money - for their schools. But entrepreneurs can generate so much more, in terms of jobs and wealth for the U.S. economy. New businesses are job creators. The Kauffman Foundation determined that over the last 30 years, all net new job growth came from companies less than five years old. More entrepreneurs also mean more innovative products and processes for U.S. companies, which make them more globally competitive.

So what are we doing to encourage our budding entrepreneurs? Academic entrepreneurship programs are popping up in schools nationwide -- from middle to graduate schools. Legacy entrepreneurship programs like Junior Achievement continue to whet student appetites for entrepreneurship. Business plan competitions, venture capital for student-run businesses and entrepreneurship clubs are popping up on campuses across the country. The Kauffman Foundation said more than 1,906 two- and four-year colleges and universities in the United States offered undergraduate or graduate coursework in entrepreneurship in 2005, up 6.5 times from 253 schools in 1980. The study of entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly sought after, growing to become the second-most popular major for Central Michigan University's College of Business Administration, and interest in entrepreneurship is even breathing new life into MBA programs, according to a report by CarringtonCrisp, the higher education marketing specialist in London.

Maybe students are tired of hearing about their gloomy job prospects and want to create their own jobs. Maybe they're looking for a fast track to technology commercialization (think: Steve Jobs and his iPod). Whatever the reasons, an entrepreneurial education will serve students well in life, no matter what career paths they choose.

For starters, entrepreneurial education prepares students for unstable and fast-changing job markets. "As the economy changes, as career outlooks change, as various industries change, entrepreneurial education can provide a backstop for people who may at some point have to fend for themselves or create some of their own opportunities," said Bob Cohen, CEO of Braintree Business Development Center in Mansfield, Ohio.

Entrepreneurship courses teach valuable life skills, like critical thinking, decision-making and learning from failure. "Don't be afraid of failing," said Brian Boyer, a young entrepreneur and president and co-founder of ManuscriptTracker, a Wooster, Ohio-based startup that sells web-based software to automate the peer review process for academic journals. "Those that are successful apply the lessons they learn from their failures."

Such education also helps students find their unique paths of innovation. "The entrepreneurial path means taking an idea and pushing it through outside of a traditional structure," said Sean Arnold, CEO of CFRC Water & Energy Solutions in Cleveland. "The more you can expose students to that idea of entrepreneurship, the less foreign or risky the idea becomes, and the more it is viewed as another viable path."

So if entrepreneurial education is important to America's economy and global competitiveness, and good for its students, why don't we recruit entrepreneurs for our colleges the way we do athletes?

More than 35,000 college coaches in the United States recruit talent from 24,000 secondary schools nationwide. And nearly $1 billion in financial aid is awarded each year to more than 126,000 student-athletes at Division I and II institutions. What if the more than 6,000 post-secondary institutions in America recruited future entrepreneurs?

Like we do with organized sports, we could engender a love for and understanding of entrepreneurship beyond the front yard lemonade stand at a young age, offering opportunities to students in middle and even elementary school.

"A person who has had entrepreneurial training in high school and college has built a foundation from which they can start a company," said Cliff Reynolds, director of Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise in Elyria, Ohio. "True entrepreneurial experience - actually taking the leap and launching a startup - is always the best teacher. But having some entrepreneurial training early on, where you learn the basics of creating a business plan, running a company, and thinking like an entrepreneur, can be of real value."

While it's unlikely we'll see large crowds cheering on high school entrepreneurship students on a Friday night in the fall anytime soon, we must consider the linkage between entrepreneurial training and support, and the future of opportunities for our youth and for our economy. We could bring philanthropy to the table to offer scholarships and other incentives for entrepreneurial degree-seekers, the way we offer sports scholarships for team participation. The rewards for our investments in potential entrepreneurs would be great: young people who could confidently, creatively and skillfully start new businesses, creating jobs, innovation and wealth for themselves and our economy.

JumpStart Inc. has invested money or other resources in TheraVasc and CFRC Water & Energy Solutions.

 

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