I’m majoring in entrepreneurship

May 30, 2007, 5:40 PM UTC
Fortune

If there’s one thing twentysomethings these days aren’t interested in doing, it’s spending an entire career at one company. Many of us aren’t even willing to spend our careers reporting to other people, whatever the company. Which explains all the talk about entrepreneurship. Get together a few ambitious twentysomething corporate Americans, and it won’t be long before somebody steers the conversation toward the side hustle. Seems like everybody’s got one, and these risky fledgling (and sometimes ill-fated) projects are often what really keep young businesspeople going in the face of the daily grind.

That’s why when I first heard about Clark University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program, I thought it might be worth some exploring on The Gig. And talking to George Gendron, former editor of Inc. magazine and founder and director of the I&E program, underscored how central entrepreneurship has become. “When I was at Inc. in the early ’80s, the skills of entrepreneurship were associated with small subsets of the population—engineers in Silicon Valley, say—and now those skills are vital life-skills for everybody,” he told me.

But the academic community hasn’t exactly heeded the call. (Despite the fact that the number of new small businesses is on the rise, with 671,800 opening doors in 2005, compared with just 585,140 in 2001.) So in 2004, Gendron created the I&E program at Clark, which lets students in any major add the entrepreneurship curriculum as a minor with an eye toward starting their own businesses as a capstone project. Not only does it serve those people who’ve got great corporate jobs and want more, it also helps more footloose types (people like me!) cobble a sustainable life out of their artistic leanings.

“This is a generation whose parents told them ‘follow your passion,'” Gendron says, “but once you do, what do you actually do with it? Entrepreneurship helps answer that question, because you can marry it to theater arts or art history or whatever you’re interested in, so that ten years from now you’re doing something in that arena, not just selling financial services.”

This month, the program graduated its first class, which included Aaron O’Hearn. The 21-year-old – who calls Gendron “one of the more influential and life-changing people I’ve met” – started out as the sort of guy who took AP Art classes and frowned on would-be corporate titans. But after taking his first I&E class, he was hooked. He founded Clark’s student entrepreneurship group, Initial Advantage, in 2004, and launched the group’s first student business – Campus Book Brokerage, which raised $10,000 from student investors and ended operations after returning a 4.5% profit – with three other members the same year. Today, IA has 30 members and provides everything from mentoring to marketing services for student entrepreneurs. The group’s waiting on 501(c)3 status and plans to create a seed fund for student initiatives.

As for O’Hearn, in 2005, he co-founded his second company, Interactive Purchasing Solutions, a sort of one-stop-shop for private school customers to buy books, uniforms, apparel and supplies. It now serves 16 private schools and is in the process of doing a second round of funding. “I knew the day I started it that this would be my career, or at least the first stop on my career path,” O’Hearn says. “It became real when I saw our first online sale happen. Then we went from 200 people visiting one month to 6,000 the next, and I said, ‘okay, we’re doing something right.'”

Other I&E businesses range from Bjoern Weidlich’s online foreign language proof-reading service, an idea the Class of 2010 student is now developing, to recent grad Tim Simokonis’s top-secret brewery. (For a full list, see here.)

And as Gendron points out, sometimes it’s about more than business. It isn’t so surprising that the students who’ve always done well academically do well in I&E. But students who come from humble beginnings also flourish in the program—and it has helped them cope. “I asked one, ‘what do you see when you think of your future?’ and he said, ‘a blank page,'” Gendron says. “I’d never met anybody like that, and he was going to drop out, but I said come audit some of my classes, and he thrived.

“They’re digging out of a psychological hole that you don’t transcend overnight, but the level of enthusiasm they get about their futures is unbelievable. You wouldn’t recognize them. So it’s not just the skill set, but what students talk about all the time when they come out of this program—a sense of unlimited options.”

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Did your school have something similar, or do you wish it had? And what would your student business have been? More importantly, are we also the Entrepreneurship Generation? “This generation has a completely redefined sense of risk,” Gendron told me. “I can hear them overtly or unconsciously ask, ‘what’s a better risk—going to a large established company, working my butt off, and getting downsized, or starting a company of my own, with no, mortgage, no husband, no kids, surrounded by experts all willing to help me?'” Is he dead on?