Wharton’s Big Push Into Startups

Wharton's Locust Walk on a recent fall day.

Wharton’s Locust Walk on a recent fall day.

The third bucket are cross-campus activities where we engage students from the engineering, medical, veterinary, law, dental, and nursing schools (and so on). We have entrepreneurship Wednesdays and undergraduate awareness programming. In any given year, our program has access to close to 2,000 students across Wharton and the university.

So this co-curricular program is embedded into the overall structure and manifests a vision and strategy that shows that we truly enable entrepreneurship and then allow people to apply the knowledge they gain through the research and teaching to their interests.

Leinweber: We have so many activities going on across campus. What we’re trying to do is to take theory from the classroom and give students a learning lab and experiential learning type of opportunity. We offer a series of workshops, advising sessions with experienced entrepreneurs, mentorship, customized milestones based on the type of venture and their stage of venture development, accountability, and a sense of community among other student entrepreneurs here at Penn. We allow them to flex their entrepreneurial muscles and take what they learned in the classroom, apply it, and customize it in the co-curricular programs. And our hope is they make progress on their venture, launch it, and, in many cases, get traction and [have something] that the student will do once they graduate.

The Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Research Center was the first center to focus exclusively on entrepreneurship. How has this research informed and enhanced the Wharton curriculum, particularly in entrepreneurship?  

Amit: Let me give you a specific example. Out of the research came a [discovery-driven planning] framework that was developed by my colleague Ian MacMillan. That concept framework has been used in our entrepreneurship offerings. And the research about traits and motivations of entrepreneurs, again, came out of our research center. And then, right from that, the research flows into the curriculum of our entrepreneurship courses. For example, how I start my course in entrepreneurship is designed to motivate people. I look them in the eyes and say, “Look, each and every one of you has what it takes to change the world and be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or whoever your hero is.” That is something that is very, very powerful. We don’t just tell stories or read cases about this-or-that company. We take it out of research that sometimes takes years to do. But it is very powerful because it can be generalized and is not content specific. And it provides powerful motivation for students to engage in entrepreneurship.

What do you see as the three keys to success for student-launched enterprises?

Wharton MBAs at graduation

Wharton MBAs at graduation

Leinweber: I don’t think there is a magic formula. There are certain things, for example, when we are looking at who are good candidates for our co-curricular programs. We have an application process where students are required to pitch. And there are definitely things we look for.

One of those is commitment. It’s a loose term, but you want the entrepreneurs to be really in it and being really committed to seeing something through. Even if they’re at the very early stage, they need to be able to convince you with their passion, animation, knowledge, and their ability to explore the areas of interest to them. And that should come across in the way they pitch the business as well as their preparation and in their written materials.

Along with commitment, I think optimism [is important]. There are many, many setbacks when you’re an entrepreneur. And you’re constantly having to review, iterate, learn, maybe go in a different direction, or refine. And [that requires you to] be optimistic about your ability to be flexible and adapt and learn as you go and continue forging a path and take advice from others and incorporate what you learn from the classroom. A kind of optimism and faith [really helps].

Very practically a willingness to test the marketplace [makes a difference]. By this, I mean designing experiments, talking to customers, coming up with a plan and thinking you have a sound approach – and then testing that with real customers and bringing back what you’ve learned, and developing the business further rather than just sitting and working and not talking with anyone in the outside world.

I would say these are keys to success for not just students looking to start an enterprise, but any entrepreneur.

What factors should prospective MBA students consider when assessing business schools for entrepreneurship?

Leinweber: I think the very big picture perspective should be looking for a rich ecosystem, diverse, a lot of variety – interdisciplinary in nature – so that you have a big experiential learning opportunity. [You’ll want] a lot of classes where you could experiment and many faculty who are doing different kinds of research that may be of interest and crosses all discipline areas. You want to be in a place where you’re going to get what you need to build a company that’s of the greatest interest to you and you’re passionate about.

So, broadly, I would say that includes faculty and academic curriculum. I would also look at whether the degree offers a major or specialization in entrepreneurial management or entrepreneurship of some kind. Is there something where you can you take a set of courses that actually appears on your transcript so that you have specialized and learned from faculty with knowledge in the area?

I would look for co-curriculuar programs, so anything outside of the regular academic curriculum – that’s a learning opportunity. Are there opportunities to talk to entrepreneurs and get some support or guidance or experiment with starting a business? For example, could you intern at a startup? Maybe, for example, you’re not launching your own venture or maybe you have a venture but you want to learn some things first. An ideal step would be spending a summer interning at a startup where you can help with a whole range of functions instead of doing one thing all summer long.

The other thing I would always recommend any prospective student to do is to visit the campus and talk to current students. And also try to make connections with recent alumni from the institution. Ask them: What did they perceive as [the program’s] strengths? What did they benefit from? Are they glad they came? What did they learn? That message should be very clearly positive if you are asking the right questions and finding your way to the right people so you know this is the place for you at the end of those conversations.

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