As a second semester senior, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back on my college career. Things I’m happy about, mistakes, things I wish I would’ve done. All the typical reminiscent thoughts of someone exiting a phase of their life. One of the main topics that has stuck in my mind is the worth of my classes. What have I learned? Did I really gain skills and get something out of my courses? In comparing my internship and job experience with my academics, one fact has really been driven home for me.

You can only truly learn by doing.

I’m the type of person who loves researching new muses. I’ll get into a new activity for a few weeks, researching and reading about it constantly. Then I’ll stop. Usually I won’t even start doing the actual activity, I’ll simply learn about it. If I do try it the obvious happens. I struggle and suck at it, then stop. The point of all this is obvious. You can read, listen to, and watch all the content and research in the world on a subject.

But you will never actually improve and be able to master it without doing it.

Apply this now to the college experience, specifically the study of entrepreneurship. The teaching of entrepreneurship is a hotly contested topic for the reason I discussed above. There are skills you simply cannot teach, they must be experienced. I’ve taken courses on idea generation, business plan writing, venture capital, corporate venturing, and growth management. Some courses I left feeling smarter, stronger, and more confident while others felt like a big waste. The argument can be made that whether or not you feel like you’ve gained specific skills in your courses, college teaches you more general skills along the way. Necessities such as time and stress management, working under deadlines, working with a team, writing, and presenting are all involved in coursework no matter the major. But isn’t the point of a major to give you those specific skills for your chosen field? Yes, you may need the necessary skills above to succeed, but you’ll also need much more specific knowledge.

The classes I feel I’ve gotten the most out of had two things in common. First, the professor had experience in the field and spoke to it through stories of personal experience. These professors also weren’t afraid to deviate from the normal curriculum to share their insight on a topic they thought was important, whether related specifically to entrepreneurship or life in general. Second, the course had specific projects and case studies where we worked with a real business or analyzed real business situations. Yet even with these professors and projects you still saw the same BS in the final product and papers. The best example of this is a group recommending a local business start a Facebook or Twitter account. I can’t tell you the amount of times this recommendation will come up in courses, with no specific details for how to actually run the accounts or strategy. Beyond that, there are flaws in these quick consulting projects because of the short time frame and limited time. In order to really make a useful consulting recommendation you need to dive into the business and really understand it. This takes time, as any business consultant will tell you. But when you are juggling a full semester course load along with extracurricular activities, this falls by the wayside. Enter simple and useless recommendations.

Schools have taken steps to create more realistic experiences for students who want it. For example, IU offers a spine sweat course where students apply with a business idea and get to pursue it for course credit. It’s extremely rigorous and ends with a presentation to a panel of investors and VC’s who decide whether you pass or not. Which, since the course is almost always taken by second semester seniors, could mean another semester at school. The Hoosier Hatchery is an incubator/accelerator for student startups. If a student has a real idea they are pursuing, there are options, at least at IU, to get mentorship, support, and an opportunity to start your business.

My regret from studying entrepreneurship is not having a business idea I was serious about. It would’ve made the entrepreneurship major vastly more valuable. So what about the students like me who want to learn entrepreneurship but simply don’t have their idea? How can we let students experience failure without failing out of school? How can we get hands-on experience? I’ve come up with a few ideas for how this can be accomplished.

1. Internship with local start-up

The end of my first senior year semester was the first time I actually had a local start-up founder come in to class to say they are looking for interns to work with them. Business schools heavily push summer internships through recruiting and career fairs, but in this case I’m discussing working with a local start-up or business during the year. The internship would be assigned a set number of credit hours completed towards their major. Note it should specifically be towards the student’s major. Many schools offer a few credit hours for summer internships, but they are general credits that don’t actually count for major coursework. The point of these suggestions is to create better alternatives to regular courses, not simply more options on top. Students struggle enough to try and fit in classes they want to take in the first place, that problem does not need to be exacerbated.

This option could work for any type of business major, or discipline in general, but in a start-up environment the entrepreneurship major applies best. I also believe being paid by the company beyond just completing credit hours should be an option. I’m not a fan of unpaid internships in general, and unless there is a specific rule against it being paid for your work doesn’t hurt anyone.

2. Online entrepreneurship course

Simply a course idea, but I’m honestly a bit surprised it hasn’t been added yet. What I can understand is a lack of people to create an informed curriculum around it. Online entrepreneurship is massive right now and continually growing. The huge resurgence of podcasting is another nod to the growth of this sector. This course could cover all sorts of topics related to an online business.

  1. Blogging
  2. Podcasting
  3. Online courses
  4. Web development and website creation
  5. Online advertising
  6. Creating a YouTube channel

There are so many different aspects of online business to cover. In the online entrepreneur community there is no shortage of content available to learn, but none directed towards an academic environment. If colleges are willing, there could be a massive opportunity for an accomplished online entrepreneur to create a curriculum around understanding and beginning the discipline. Make the course online so it’s available to whichever schools want it, not to mention it makes complete sense to teach online entrepreneurship online.

Present course lectures in the formats you are teaching. Online videos, podcast lectures, blog posts, etc. Case studies on successful online entrepreneurs and personalities could also be a great addition. Think about the John and Hank Greens, Tim Ferriss, Pat Flynn, the list goes on.

Maybe I’m biased because of my personal interest in online business, but the field is well established and growing. It’s an extremely low cost way to start a business and a great option for many.

I’ll include a list of some of my favorite online businesses and entrepreneurs at the end of this post in case you are interested.

3. Entrepreneurial immersion course

Option three presents many different options and possibilities. I’ll dive into a few but it could be open to interpretation depending on each campus and capabilities. The entrepreneurial immersion course consists of multiple options in providing an entrepreneurial environment for students who don’t have their own business ideas.

Assign students to university run businesses

There are all sorts of possibilities for giving entrepreneurship students business experience within the university environment. The key here is to have the students actually work on the business, not simply to be a cashier or other menial work. For example, have students help run the university apparel store. Duties could include marketing the apparel and running campaigns, running the books for the store, controlling inventory and relationships with suppliers, etc. Create opportunities within university run businesses for entrepreneurship students to flex their muscle and learn hands-on.

Create university run businesses run purely by students

Same as above but starting from scratch. Ideas could be vetted by faculty or students, then executed by student teams with faculty advisors. Give the students a budget provided by the school and let them build a business. These businesses can be passed down between semesters to different student groups as well for longevity.

4. Replace courses with your business

This idea may already exist at IU specifically via the student venture track. But information doesn’t specify whether you can replace normal coursework with your business. Provide a faculty member to work as a mentor and guide through the semester. Specific goals and tasks should be assigned to the student to measure their success and give a grade at the end of the semester. Again, it needs to be about effort put in, not based purely on the success of the business. Giving students the opportunity to gain credit hours while pursuing a real business venture is hands down the best way to teach entrepreneurship. The faculty member can have the student create a business plan and other activities that may be replaced by running a business instead of taking a class, but the main focus for the student should be running their business.

For students who don’t have business ideas, there should be an option to join up with a student who does. A student business owner can decide to bring on other students and create a team around their company for the semester or longer. This way people (like me) who don’t have an idea but really want to dive into entrepreneurship have an opportunity to do so where they may not have been able to before.

Oh, and unless the student is receiving investment from the school or someone in it, they should retain full ownership.

What’s the point?

The endgame for any of these suggestions is hands-on experience in an entrepreneurial environment for students who desire it. This legitimate real life experience shouldn’t be limited to students who have a working business idea. Not everyone who is interested in entrepreneurship will be the founder of a company, many will be employee #2, #3, or #15. Large effort is required of the school and faculty, including a possible financial investment to boot. But I believe if hands-on opportunities such as the ideas above are provided, the school will produce more entrepreneurs in both quantity and quality.

Why does real life experience have to be limited to summer jobs and internships? Let’s make it a part of the curriculum.

I absolutely welcome comments, criticism, and discussion on this topic. I’d be very interested to hear the academic leadership’s viewpoint on this issue or other options. Have a thought? Share it in the comments below!

Some of my favorite online entrepreneurs and businesses

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February 12, 2015

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