While some scientists are being bogged down by research about whether entrepreneurship can be taught, students of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill’s new entrepreneurship program suffer no such psychological hand-wringing. Many of them may consider themselves innately innovative, but their choice of minor is clear indication that these future business owners believe those skills can be honed – in the classroom.
The program, now in its seventh year was created as part of the Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative, an $11 million fund to foster innovation among UNC-CH students. Students choose from four entrepreneurial “tracks” (commercial, social, scientific and artistic) and then take a mix of economics, policy, philosophy, marketing, sociology and history classes, all taught by professors with entrepreneurial success. Entrepreneurship students are also required to complete a summer internship, based on the theory that hands-on experience is integral to understanding the realities of entrepreneurship, which aren’t always as glamorous as our romantic fantasies.
The program’s attempts to ground entrepreneurship in reality have not, however, deterred would-be innovators from hungrily seeking out the minor. While only 100 students are accepted each year, nearly 300 applied to the program last year.
In response to the overwhelming demand for a unique spin on traditional, but often staid, business programs, UNC-CH will offer a 400 person Intro to Entrepreneurship class starting in fall 2012. Preliminary syllabus topics include a lecture on New York’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a guest lecture from Teach for America founder and a class listed as “The Importance of Design – A Steve Jobs Retrospective.”
Clearly, entrepreneurial aspirations are thriving at UNC-CH. But while the appeal of self-employment and Jobsian salaries is obvious, the logistics of an entrepreneurship minor are less so. For most students, the initial interest such a minor piques is almost immediately followed by confusion. Who actually minors in entrepreneurship? Are they drawn to the minor itself, or the fantasy of it? Why would they chase self-employment in such an uncertain economy?
Lee Lee Lyon, a public policy major minoring in social entrepreneurship, said she chose the program after taking a class from Carolina’s entrepreneur-in-residence (yes, such a thing exists!), Buck Goldstein, her freshman year. “He pitched the entrepreneurship minor very well, and I have to say everything I have done in the minor so far has exceeded my expectations. The quality of the professors, exposure to successful entrepreneurs and challenging but rewarding coursework are just some of the amazing aspects of the minor,” said Lee Lee.
Exercise and sports science major Mary Carr Allen chose the scientific entrepreneurship minor after hearing fellow students rave about it. “I had heard such great things about the minor from friends. I was in search of a smaller community at Carolina, and I had heard the professors were awesome, so I decided to apply.” Her fellow scientific entrepreneurship minor, psychology major Becca Vinson, applied to the program as a complement to her science-oriented major. “I wanted to be pushed in the business world,” Becca said. “The minor seemed appealing because it fostered both my personal interests (business and psychology) with…real world ideas.”
Perhaps partially as a response to an ambiguous economy, the women were hesitant to say they planned to put the minor to use immediately after college. Mary Carr said she hopes to go to Physician Assistant school. “Not exactly ‘business,’ but I will have to know how to navigate the medical world in terms of finding a doctor with whom to work.”
Becca said she isn’t planning to open a business right away, but that her plans are “definitely” subject to change. “Opening up your own business comes with a lot of risk, sacrifice and challenge. The most concern comes with the lifestyle sacrifice that comes in starting at square one and finding tools to build up from the bottom.”
Still, all three students look to their (female) entrepreneurial predecessors for inspiration, should they decide to throw caution to the wind and go for it with a start-up venture. “Being the shopaholic that I am, I would love to have Jennifer Heiman and Jennifer Fleiss, the founders of Rent the Runway, come to talk,” said Lee Lee. “I would like to ask them about what career path they thought they were going to take, and how they had the courage to turn their idea into a business.”
Mary Carr also expressed an interest in speaking to a retail entrepreneur. “I would love for the lady who started [North Carolina boutique] Scout & Molly’s to come speak…She seems to run a successful store and I’d love to know her motivation behind what she does and why she chose to start her business.”
Becca did not name a specific entrepreneurial idol, but said that she would love to hear from a panel of past business/entrepreneurship minors about how well college lectures translate into the real world.