Startup 101: More Universities Are Trying To Figure Out How To Teach Entrepreneurship


As Suzanne Sepe arches over the kitchen counter in her New Haven, Conn., home, grinding black pepper on grass-fed lamb drizzled with yogurt cilantro sauce, Yale Law student Khalil Tawil interrupts. “Try this,” he says, producing a Ziploc bag of fragrant coriander, cumin and cloves from his backpack. “My mother’s Lebanese spice mix.”

The offering seals their business transaction like a handshake – Tawil, his Yale Law classmate Jason Gilliland and Yale undergrad Hallie Meyer are co-founders of Umi, named after the Arabic word for “mother,” a startup that delivers home-cooked meals made by local cooks, many of them immigrants, to residents of New Haven. Sepe was among the first recruits to the startup, which is housed in an incubator operated by Yale.

Yale’s Entrepreneurial Institute awarded Umi $15,000 of seed funding, as well as office space alongside nine other student startups in New Haven. They reside in a single room with whiteboard-lined walls where students sprawl on couches with sound-canceling headphones coding on their laptops and where their meals are catered free of charge. Since 2007, Yale’s Entrepreneurial Institute has incubated more than 90 startups and raised more than $100 million in investment funding. Startups like Umi represent the practical component of the school’s growing entrepreneurship programs, which saw the addition of seven new classes in the last academic year alone, keeping in step with a larger trend spanning universities nationwide.

The University of Michigan was the first to introduce a course in entrepreneurship in 1927, followed by Harvard Business School in 1947. There are now more than 2,700 entrepreneurship programs throughout the country, many offering courses in hiring, managing assets and cash flow, designing products, computing, creating legal structures and other challenges of starting a business. But the definitions of entrepreneurship at these schools can vary widely, and there is no consensus on how entrepreneurship should be taught as an academic discipline — or even if it can be taught.

One reason is that there are no authoritative textbooks on the subject – although the “Lean Startup Method” a term coined by Eric Ries in his 2011 bestselling book has been adopted widely by proponents of entrepreneurship. Ken Jones, director of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston, says he has been asked three times in the last month alone to write a textbook. “There is no unified, canonical way of teaching entrepreneurship,” says Kyle Jensen, director of entrepreneurship at Yale’s School of Management. “It’s not like chemistry or physics or English or some kind of discipline that has a multi-hundred-year tradition of scholarship.”

Thanks to its longtime partnership with Silicon Valley, Stanford has been the acknowledged standard-bearer for entrepreneurship education. In fact, 17% of its business school’s class of 2014 became entrepreneurs, according to university statistics.