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New Ways B-Schools Are Teaching Entrepreneurship

EntrepreneurshipThere's a revolution happening at b-schools across the country. Professors are throwing out stale ideas about business plans and teaching entrepreneurship in a whole new way. Their approach can be summed up in three words: Just do it. Students are encouraged to study their customer and test their ideas from the very start of class, rather than spending months writing out business plans.

Harvard Business Review ushered in this new era with a cover story in May 2013 written by Steve Blank, a serial-entrepreneur turned professor who created the Lean LaunchPad course. While Blank's course gained traction at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, Columbia Business School, and Stanford's engineering school, others have taken cues to create similar approaches aimed at providing hands-on learning and sometimes launching actual startups.

At Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, professors have let this learn-by-doing philosophy penetrate all aspects of entrepreneurship education. For example, the school no longer has business plan competitions, nor does it include business plans in the curriculum.

"With business plans, students end up with beautiful documents full of unsupported assumptions," says Jeff Reid, founding director of the Georgetown entrepreneurship Initiative. "What they're really learning is how to create a beautiful document."

Indeed, business schools are recognizing the benefits of "doing" rather than "writing." Here's how three innovative schools have changed their approach to entrepreneurial education:

Georgetown University: Startup Factory

MBA students who take this course conduct hundreds of customer interviews in a short period of time, says Reid, who helped create the Startup Factory. Participants propose and immediately test the hypotheses of their startup ideas. Then, they go out into the world to talk to customers, competitors, and potential partners about commercializing their idea.

A special part of the curriculum, the course, which is offered to full-time and evening MBA students, only lasts five days. During that time a team of four will conduct 80 to 100 interviews. "This is the real world experience of validating a startup business idea," adds Reid.

Finally, students use all they learn from the research to create business models. The idea is for people to actually experience entrepreneurship as opposed to just talking about it. "We find the focus on understanding customers' true needs -- as opposed to crafting business plans full of unsupported assumptions -- is much more valuable and useful," says Reid.

In fact, since the course's launch in 2013, several students have pursued the startup idea they came up with in class. Many of them pivot and change their business based on feedback received during the course.

Barry University: Leadership Training

At Barry University in Miami, students are the ones getting interviewed, at least initially. Professor Michael Provitera questions them to determine what they would like to do with their lives and how they'd improve an existing business or start a new one. Over the course of eight weeks, students, armed with the information gleaned from their interview, work on an applied project based on their particular goals.

There's lots of talk in business schools about how to be entrepreneurial even if you work for a traditional, already established company. And this course gives you the chance to do just that -- or not -- depending on what you prefer. "The applied project can be a student creating a new business or changing a current department or implementing a new program to help the organization," says Provitera. "Some projects are entrepreneurial and others are intrapreneurial."

Again, no one is writing a business plan, and their business experiment accounts for 90 percent of their grade, with presentation accounting for the remaining 10 percent. Taking action has to be your M.O. when trying to work in an economy still struggling to get out of crisis.

"Students are graduating from Ivy League schools and finding it hard to find work while others are attempting to fulfill a lifelong goal of completing an MBA program only to find that they lose their job half way through or even when they finish and are looking for a promotion," warns Provitera. Having the ability to create something without wasting any time can give you an edge.

Capitol College: Advanced Technology Implementation

Capitol College is an online university, and its Advanced Technology Implementation course has students participating in a simulation of a real business. Students take on the roles of internal and partner positions with the goal of understanding the decision-making process and how organizations function, says Michael T. Wood, president of Capitol College in Laurel, Maryland.

While a simulation is not an actual startup, it does provide students with an experiential learning experience that eschews the traditional business plan. "Participating in the simulation course," says Wood, "gives Capitol students an opportunity to take risks that they couldn't take in a real life environment."

Evolution tends to be slow in the halls of academia. But business schools interested in churning out tomorrow's leaders can't resist change. In order to breed innovation, educators must give students room to innovate. And while the debate rages over whether entrepreneurship can actually be taught, there's no doubt that practicing at b-school can't hurt.