WHAT’S BEHIND WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY’S DOMINANCE
Much of Washington University’s dominance in entrepreneurship can be attributed to the broader ecosystem it has helped to cultivate in the revitalization of the St. Louis metro region. The university’s entrepreneurship program began in 1999 with the launch of the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2008 when the Olin Business School launched its first entrepreneurship-focused course, The Hatchery. At the same time, Henry (Hank) Webber was hired by WashU from the University of Chicago as the executive vice chancellor and chief administrative officer at Washington University.
During the same timeframe, St. Louis’s Cortex district was established and began to grow. As the Olin Business School continued to build its entrepreneurial base, launching multiple entrepreneurship-focused courses and expanding co-curricular activities, Cortex grew into a bonafide and bustling 200-plus acre innovation hub that has been home to more than 400 companies, creating 15,000 jobs, and pouring more than $2 billion of economic activity into the St. Louis region. Along with it has popped up other incubators and hubs including the T-Rex space, located a few miles northeast of Cortex near the Mississippi River and Gateway Arch. One of the early leaders of the space — which has been home to more than 200 startups since its launch in 2011 — is Cliff Holekamp, who essentially created and revved up Olin’s entrepreneurship program.
“One of the great things about Olin is we continue to innovate,” says Doug Villhard, who has been the academic director of entrepreneurship at Olin and a professor in entrepreneurship since 2019. Villhard says in the past three years, the school has added five to seven new courses in entrepreneurship. A few years ago, after Taylor became Olin’s dean, entrepreneurship became one of the four pillars of the school’s strategy for excellence. Since then, even more resources have been put into building Olin into an entrepreneurship power.
RICE JONES AN EARLY ENTREPRENEURIAL POWER
Third-place Rice University’s Jones School has had a similar entrepreneurial path, albeit perhaps a few years behind WashU. The Jones School itself is less than three decades old. But entrepreneurship was baked into its DNA from the get-go. The late Ed Williams and current professor Al Napier are credited with starting the entrepreneurial focus. But it wasn’t until 2013 when Jones plucked Yael Hochberg from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management that the program really started to surge.
Infamous for the Rice Business Plan Competition, which has a total prize purse of more than $1.6 million, Hochberg, who serves as the head of the Entrepreneurship Initiative at Rice and as the academic director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, and her team began building out programs like the Liu Idea Lab, which launched programming in 2015 and a physical space in 2017. Since then, Jones has also created an MBA concentration in entrepreneurship and an undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship.
“We’re not just about the theory of entrepreneurship, but it’s entrepreneurship applied in real-time,” says Kyle Judah, the executive director of the Liu Lab. “Entrepreneurship is a contact sport. You can’t learn about it just by viewing it from the sidelines. You’ve got to get your hands dirty and learn by doing.”
EXPERIENTIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP LEARNING
That experiential component of learning entrepreneurship by doing is what continues to help schools like Olin and Jones thrive and build out strong entrepreneurship programs.
“The entrepreneurship classes are very hands-on. You create a business in the entrepreneurship classes,” says Rhonda Smythe, who is a second-year MBA at Olin. Smythe came to WashU on the Mark Twain Bancshares Scholarship and with a farm-to-table business called Nourish STL in the works. Smythe was sold on WashU after attending a “Be A Student For A Day” event. “I was so blown away by the quality of teaching at WashU that I knew I had to find a way to get in,” she says. “Because I knew this level of teaching was what I needed to have the biggest impact possible.”
Lungile Tshuma, who graduated last spring, also came to Olin with entrepreneurship in mind. Born in Zimbabwe, initially educated in Wales (UK) and having lived in Durban, South Africa, Tshuma used his MBA experience to create a LinkedIn-like platform for non-U.S. students. His startup helps schools recruit international students and guides students toward the best possible match. Dubbed Oystar, Tshuma says the site is entering beta mode. “WashU really opened my eyes to the possibilities of building a business,” Tshuma says. “It’s not only financial, it’s not only theory, it’s not only mentorship, but it’s also teams and a well-rounded environment that is built around entrepreneurship. And it’s intentional.”
GROWING A PROGRAM AT RICE
That experiential focus is also baked into Jones’s program. “Every student that is going to complete our entrepreneurship program is going to do something truly experiential,” Hochberg says. “You may want to be a founder, you may want to join a team, you may want to be on the investor side of it. We try to give everybody those opportunities.”
Part of that is the mindset of integrating the classroom with being a founder.
“You don’t have to choose between being a student and being an entrepreneur by coming to Rice. You can do both,” Judah says. “And being a better student makes you a better founder and being a better founder makes you a better student.”
Rice University and the Jones School continue to build up their experiential offerings. Another big component of that is the OwlSpark Accelerator Program, which is modeled off the Tech Stars program and is offered during 12 weeks in the summer, says Brad Burke, the managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship and executive director of the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers.
Burke says the school has also grown its course and mentorship offerings as well as a series of venture capital conferences called the Technology Venture Forums. Jones has also recently launched a Clean Energy Accelerator focused on launching companies and initiatives leading in the transition to renewables and clean energy.