CREATING A VIBRANT AND SUPPORTIVE ENTREPRENEURIAL ECOSYSTEM
Of course, a healthy entrepreneurial climate within a business school is based on more than funding. Most new ventures created by MBAs are bootstrapped with funding in hundreds of thousands of dollars from friends and family. They are formed from the confluence of entrepreneurial-minded students, faculty, and staff on a business school campus and gain support and encouragement through curricular and co-curricular resources, along with physical space and initial seed funding.
Yet again, the Olin Business School at Washington University provided the best well-rounded entrepreneurial support system for full-time MBAs. Besides topping the list for the highest percentage of graduates to launch businesses, the school placed among the top 15 in eight out of ten other categories.
Olin, with an annual intake of just over 100 full-time MBA students, dished out $738,000 in startup award cash to MBAs during the 2019-2020 academic year. A third of its student-run MBA clubs are focused on entrepreneurship or innovation. It boasts more than 25,000-square-feet of accelerator space for just 221 enrolled full-time MBAs. What’s more, about a quarter of its full-time MBA faculty teach either entrepreneurship or innovation courses. That commitment to entrepreneurial thinking occurs in a metro environment that has encouraged new venture creation.
12 YEARS OF RAPID ENTREPRENEURIAL GROWTH AT OLIN
Washington University’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has been building for the past 15 years or so and has not coincidently coincided with a renewed startup scene in St. Louis. The 203-acre Cortex district on the opposite side of Forest Park from Washington University was first created in 2002 but has seen a sizable growth spurt since 2008 when Hank Webber was hired as Washington University’s executive vice chancellor and chief administrative officer. Under his leadership, the Cortex district now houses hundreds of large and small businesses in thousands of square feet of coworking space, accelerators, and offices.
Around the same time, in 2002, the Olin School founded the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship, making its first real commitment to teaching entrepreneurship. But it wasn’t until 2008 when Olin hired its first full-time entrepreneurship faculty member in MBA alum and serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist Cliff Holekamp. Olin had just two entrepreneurship courses — Intro to Entrepreneurship and the Hatchery, the school’s incubator class within the Skandalaris Center — when Holekamp was hired.
Over the next 12 years, Holekamp oversaw the creation of 15 entrepreneurship-focused elective courses before leaving Olin to oversee T-REX, another incubator in downtown St. Louis.
‘WE’RE THE GO-TO PLACE FOR TALENT’
Nowadays, WashU’s Olin School has a smorgasbord of entrepreneurial resources for MBAs. Entrepreneurship is a concentration option for MBAs and includes more than 20 hours of electives and at least one experiential project. The school regularly facilitates connections between MBA students and early-stage startups in the St. Louis area for consulting projects. Last year, the CELect program matched 10 local early-stage startups with 40 MBAs for 14-week projects.
“More and more accelerators are opening here, where they bring in a cohort of young companies and invest in them,” says Doug Villhard, the academic director of for Entrepreneurship at the Olin School. Stadia Ventures, a sports-focused accelerator, is one of the local accelerators that matches its portfolio startups with teams of Olin MBAs. “Those accelerators are partnering with WashU and getting MBAs assigned to the portfolio companies,” says Villhard, who has been launching startups in St. Louis for the past two decades. “We’re the go-to place for talent. So our MBAs are getting partnered with these startups.”
Connecting with entrepreneurial alumni has also been a boon in developing entrepreneurs at WashU, says II (Two) Luscri, the managing director of the Skandalaris Center and vice provost for innovation and entrepreneurship at WashU. “We have so many entrepreneurial alumni out there,” Luscri continues, noting the school has made an extra push starting in January when it created the Skandalaris Startup Webinar Series. The Series, which virtually connects alumni with current students, has been super popular, especially recently in a coronavirus-forced virtual world.
BABSON DOUBLING DOWN ON ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Babson College, which climbed into second this year from third, has baked entrepreneurship into its DNA for half a century. Not many have been around that program and seen its growth more than Stephen Spinelli, who served as Vice Provost of the school between 1993 and 2007 and just took over as President of Babson in July 2019.
“We lead with it,” Spinelli says of teaching entrepreneurship to MBAs. “That’s our brand. When I say brand, that’s the promise we’ve made for 30 years. We will empower you, enable you to see the world in a different way. To solve the problems and create value.”
During the 12 years Spinelli was serving as president at another college, he says Babson made three main developments in its approach to entrepreneurship education. First, Spinelli says, has been the basic integration of its “thought and action” approach that emphasizes smart action, failing fast, and pivoting based on what you learned. “It is a purposeful strategy for the business model at Babson,” he explains. “And became much more purposeful over the 10 years I was gone.”
The upshot: the creation and development of eight institutes and centers at Babson focused on the marriage of thought and action, or the theory and practice to teach students an entrepreneurial mindset. “That has created this more direct connection between what happens in the classroom and a student’s ability to self-curate their interaction with the marketplace at the same time,” Spinelli says. “Those centers and institutes allow a student to do that with a greater degree of self-curation and freedom. You have to have finance, you have to have accounting, you have to have marketing. You have to have these integrated studies.” But then you can apply those in the different institutes and centers, he says. “That coordination and integration that is really led by the students is probably the single-most innovation that I’ve seen.”
Spinelli says the second major shift has been the blurring of lines between social and economic value when it comes to creating a company. “They’re intimately woven and you should measure both,” he says, noting schools better focus on both because the current crop of MBAs is looking to excel in both. Lastly, Babson has put more focus on interdisciplinary collaboration among its faculty, no matter what discipline they come from.