WisBusiness: Students may fuel next entrepreneur wave

By Brian E. Clark


MADISON – The entrepreneurial spirit is rising at UW-Madison and other campuses, and not just among faculty and staff who want to start new companies.

Students are also chomping at the bit to create their own firms, officials say, which is one of the reasons why the University Research Park is opening 10 incubator suites in a former manufacturing site on East Washington Ave. in the capital city.

UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley is predicting an “explosion” of student-run companies. He says there has been a “sea change” over the past decade in attitudes of students, many of whom now want to run their own companies rather than work for someone else.

Wiley cited a $4 million Kauffman Foundation grant to the university to foster campus-wide programs over five years to encourage young entrepreneurs. The program is being coordinated by the university’s Office of Corporate Relations, which is headed by Charles Hoslet.

The goal of the foundation grant, Hoslet said, is to “expand entrepreneurship education and learning beyond just the traditional boundaries of the business school.

“If you look at where entrepreneurship education has traditionally occurred in universities around the country, you’ll find that 80 percent is in schools of business,” he said.

“But if you look where entrepreneurs come from around the country, only about 20 percent come from the school of business. So there is this huge mismatch. The people who are going out and being entrepreneurial aren’t getting the education that could be really beneficial to them.”

With the help of the Kauffman Foundation grant, Hoslet said the university is trying to expose non-business school students to entrepreneurial training through regular courses, events and activities and even competitions.

“That’s really the focus,” he said, noting that there are six entrepreneurial programs that have been started or are about to come on line in six of the university’s 13 different schools.

Hoslet said he is especially excited about a new residential learning community focused on entrepreneurship that is being set up at Sellery Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

It will consist of 60 students on a designated dorm floor who all have an interest in running their own businesses. He said they will all be taking specialized courses, going on field trips and attending dinners with area business creators to learn about entrepreneurship and how that relates to what they are learning in school.

Another course that is coming on line will be in the School of Human Ecology called “entrepreneurship and society” that will look at the role entrepreneurs have played in the growth of the country.

Hoslet said it won’t deal just with starting a business, but how also it relates to the non-profit world and social and creative enterprises.

Other classes include two in the College of Engineering, he said. One focuses on technology and entrepreneurship, which is ideal for students considering the East Washington Ave. incubator suites. It will begin this fall.

Another in the engineering school, which began last spring, is in biomedical engineering. Participants work with faculty and clinicians, identify real-world problems and try to come up with solutions.

Hoslet agreed with Wiley that many students no longer want to work for someone else.

“Part of it has to do with the economy in the country and the world,” he said. “When our parents grew up, you typically went to work for one company and stayed there for 20 or 30 years… got your gold watch and retired.”

Today’s students might change jobs four or five times and have multiple careers, he said.

“What you start with coming right out of college may not even exist 15 or 20 years from now and students recognize that. They are seeing it happen and they are paying attention to what is happening in the world.

“They want to understand and have the skills that allow them to think creatively and navigate the waters that are coming at them so fast,” he said.

Doug Bradley, who also works in the Office of Corporate Relations, said young people have a different view of work than their elders.

“A lot of them work and are putting themselves through school,” said Bradley, who has two grown children. “But they have a whole different outlook about who’s in charge, how they manage their hours and what employment is like.

“It’s interesting, this combination of what they expect and what they hope to have. Given the changes in the workplace, entrepreneurship fits right in that space. It doesn’t mean everyone is going to start a business, but they could also bring entrepreneurial thinking to an existing business that could help it reinvent itself.”

Hoslet said students today have different role models, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who did not finish college.

“I don’t think Michael Dell (of Dell computers) finished college either and they obviously have been very successful,” Hoslet said. (Dell quit the University of Texas-Austin after one year.)

“They’ve done what they wanted and that’s attractive.

Hoslet said students are also paying more attention to work/life balance issues, which makes being their own bosses attractive.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be there at 8 a.m. every morning and work until 5:30 p.m. if they don’t want to,” he said. “They can take Fridays off, or they can work 24 hours a day.”