Can entrepreneurship be taught? Two students at Tufts are trying

By Erin Griffith , written on September 30, 2013

From The News Desk

Conventional Silicon Valley wisdom says that founders should drop out of college once they've hit their big idea. Mark Zuckerberg did it. Bill Gates did it. Peter Thiel pays kids to do it. The trope of the 20-year-old dropout founder is so well known, it's practically a cliche. The idea is that these founders can learn more by running their own company (even if it fails) than they can in a very expensive classroom.

So naturally, there's a backlash. A growing group of venture firms are tapping college students to help find their new investments on campuses, with the idea that these student-founders can stay in school while building their companies. Vehicles like First Round Capital's Dorm Room Fund, General Catalyst's Rough Draft Ventures, and The Experiment Fund, backed by Accel Partners, NEA and Polaris Venture Partners, fund entrepreneurs while they're in school. Dorm Room Fund has invested in 24 companies across eight campuses in its first year.

A new seminar class at Tufts College called is taking that stay-in-school idea a step further. Run by two students as part of Tufts' Experimental College program, the class is designed to inspire its students to get involved in the startup community while they're in college. It's being run by two seniors, John Brennan and Jack McDermott, who have both launched startups while in school.

Hardcore Silicon Valley types might dismiss the class as further proof of "wantrapreneurs," who think a class can make them into rich tech visionaries. But really, the class is just a simple a way to help students take their curiosity about this whole startup thing and do something about it. It's also about opening students' minds to the possibility of going into the tech world after school, even if they are non-technical.

"People just don't know what they're going to do after school, and they don't have the tools to do anything other than email their resume," Brennan says. "They have blinders to the opportunities out there beyond finance and consulting."

So aims to connect students with the entrepreneurship community. A variety of members of the Boston startup scene are participating in the semester-long class, which students take as "pass/fail." The seminar includes guest lectures from tech community members such as Peter Boyce II and Nitesh Banta, investors at General Catalyst Partners, CEO of textbook startup Boundless Ariel Diaz, and a senior account manager at Twitter Allie Cascio. The class will take field trips to startup offices and has encouraged students to attend local events, like MIT's Startup Bootcamp, and includes readings on minimum viable product and lean startup methodology, case studies on tech startups, and hands-on problem solving with real companies.

There's no shortage of free startup 101 material out there on the Web, thanks to the preponderance of VC blogs and videos. formalizes it into a course and adds a layer of in-person learning and networking on top.

Ultimately the class encourages students to think about life after college while they're in college. "We're stretching their boundaries of what they think they can do at college, which is usually just walk around and maybe join an intramural sport or a club," Brennan says. "We want to get them into the mindset of, 'What are you excited about right now and what can you do to get out of your comfort zone to do that every day?'"

If it weren't designed by other students, I'd say this is just an example of a university capitalizing on startup fever. (And hey, it seems to be working for Tim Draper!) I wouldn't blame the university if it was, though. We've already seen what happens to business schools when they don't jump on the startup bandwagon -- just look at Wharton's sharp decline in applicants, while universities with closer ties to startup communities, like MIT and Stanford, gain in popularity.

Colleges like Tufts have much to gain from fostering a reputation for entrepreneurship. Investors are hungry for talent that doesn't come from MIT, Stanford, or Harvard. Howard Marks recently argued on PandoDaily that investing in talent from those schools comes with a premium price attached. Broadening the places where entrepreneurship and talent grow can't be a bad thing. Marks made a list of schools which are home to the best entrepreneurs; Northwestern, University of Maryland, and Princeton ranked the highest.

Already students from Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard have reached out to Brennan asking how they can pitch a version of to the administrations of their schools, he says. And a number of freshman have asked to audit the class for no credit, but Brennan has turned them down because he wants the class to be its own tight-knit group of 15.

Certainly there are many aspects of entrepreneurship that can't be taught. But for students who are curious and don't know where to start, classes like are a push in the right direction.

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