By Eric Garneau
To Go or Not to Go
Mark Zuckerberg. Bill Gates. Steve Wozniak. Those are just a few of the household names who launched companies in college and proceeded to become billionaires. Certainly, then, the possibility exists to strike it rich with a revolutionary business idea while you're at school, but is it probable? Could college even hinder your career aspirations?
Some businesspeople think so. In an August 2011 article on the business magazine Entrepreneur's website, YoungEntrepreneur.com founder Adam Toren discusses whether or not college is a useful step for business-minded young people. He argues that it can be, but that the key qualities that help an entrepreneur succeed - like drive and passion - can't be taught at school; they could even be dampened there. Toren concludes that, while some individuals might stand to gain from a typical college experience, in the long run they probably aren't missing anything by skipping college and going straight into business for themselves.
How College Can Help Your (Eventual) Business
But is that true? Many enterprising businesspeople, including Toren himself, acknowledge that college provides at least one serious advantage - amazing networking opportunities. By interacting with individuals of similar minds and interests, you get four years or so to spend scoping out potential collaborators who might be able to help you make your dreams a reality. Even Toren notes that though he has 'a Rolodex of contacts many would envy' it probably took him longer to accrue those contacts than it would have for someone who went to college.
Though incredibly helpful when launching a business, gaining a wealth of contacts isn't necessarily the only benefit of college to entrepreneurs. According to a November 2011 U.S. News & World Report article, entrepreneurship concentrations in MBA programs are becoming more and more popular. In fact, as the magazine reports, 'entrepreneurship is now among the top five most sought-after areas of course content.' In fact, the top three business schools as ranked by U.S. News (Stanford, Harvard and Sloan at MIT) all have entrepreneurial concentrations as part of their MBA programs. Top-ranking Stanford even offers a podcast called Entrepreneurship Corner dedicated to spreading innovative business ideas through technology.
Can You Learn to Be an Entrepreneur?
That said, MBA entrepreneurship programs shouldn't be seen as crash-courses in becoming an innovative businessperson. As U.S. News points out, 'the best programs acknowledge that they don't actually create entrepreneuers - they merely nurture innate ability.' Are some people born leaders and innovators? Perhaps. But in any case, leadership, drive and creative thinking can't be taught, at least not directly. You've got to have those things inside you, and going to college is no guarantee that you will.
On the other hand, a college education is a fantastic way to get thinking about the world at large and what products and services it might need. Through encounters with cultures and points of view so foreign from your own, you'll start pondering the world beyond your meager experiences. If you take the challenge of your classes the right way, you'll be forced to think critically, and perhaps a spark of ingenuity will be lit. All of these things can absolutely happen outside a college campus, but they're also precisely the things many institutions of higher learning are designed to do for you. If you want to change the world, in other words, college seems like a pretty good place to start.
Many business grad school programs now embrace critical thinking and innovation. But how about their undergraduate counterparts?