Until ten years ago, the idea of an executive education program in entrepreneurship was practically an oxymoron.
Schools focused their executive education programs on large or medium-sized, well-established companies. Programs that were aimed at smaller organizations were usually branded as innovation or small business programs—but these programs did little more than repackage material designed for larger companies.
But now, everything has changed.
Thanks to the 2008 recession and an emerging entrepreneurial spirit in many places around the world, more and more schools are offering executive education programs specifically targeted at entrepreneurs. Schools like Boston University's Questrom School of Business offer global entrepreneurship programs to students from all over the world. Babson College offers a short Entrepreneur Boot Camp, which attracts 500 students from all over the world every summer, as well as classes in subjects such as “Driving Economic Growth through Entrepreneurship Ecosystems.” Harvard University offers short classes in running family businesses, seeing short businesses through their life cycles, and launching new ventures.
Officials say these courses appeal to entrepreneurs in various stages of business development. One of the main functions of an executive education program in entrepreneurship is helping students figure out whether they can handle the risk and uncertainty inherent in the entrepreneur's lifestyle.
“It's important to have programs where people can self-diagnose: ‘do I have the stomach to be an entrepreneur?’” says Jonathan Lehrich, Associate Dean of Executive Education at Boston University.
“Some people don't. They want to work for the Man. They like having health benefits.”
But for students who are committed to making a go of the entrepreneurial lifestyle, entrepreneurship programs can help them take their brilliant idea and turn it into a viable business.
“We help them learn the skills to look for opportunity, to create opportunity, to take it from more than just an idea. How do you grow it by thoroughly understanding the marketplace?” says Elaine Eisenman, dean of executive education at Babson College.
Lehrich says that this is an essential part of any entrepreneur's education. A potential entrepreneur can hatch a genius business concept, but if he or she doesn't know how to take that idea into the business world, it will fail before it even starts.
“Many great ideas have failed in the field of dreams,” Lehrich says. “People need to get from 'I have a cool thing' to 'I have a thing people will buy.' People need to do the whole process of customer identification, customer research, being able to explain your idea to funders. These are the kinds of things scientists and engineers cooking up ideas in their room will never do.”
At Harvard Business School, the Owner/President Management program helps entrepreneurs implement change in new or growing businesses on a yearly basis, since the program is structured so it runs for three weeks every year for three years.
“This can be of great value to an executive who wants to see the lessons of the classroom immediately applied to the day-to-day aspects of his or her business as that business evolves and grows,” according to a representative for Harvard Business School.
And Harvard's family business-focused programs are geared towards helping students who are preparing to take over existing family businesses and need some guidance for how to keep a small business growing and succeeding.
But beyond helping individuals explore the entrepreneurial lifestyle and hone their business skills, these programs have a third function: fulfilling the goals of corporations or governments that want to inject an entrepreneurial spirit into their operations.
Lehrich says BU commonly sees students from other countries whose governments are eager to craft a culture of entrepreneurship.
“For example, we did a program with students from Norway and from South Korea in which the individuals are trying to build up their companies, but the funding is coming from the government, which is trying to build up its entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Lehrich says.
Part of that eagerness comes from a cultural difference between a research hub like Boston, where entrepreneurs are encouraged and lauded, and other parts of the United States and world, where entrepreneurship can be regarded with suspicion.
“There are a lot of parts of the world, in the US and outside, in which being an entrepreneur means you must have failed,” Lehrich says. “One of the reasons why places like Norway, South Korea, etc. are so eager to inject entrepreneurship is that they're afraid they have a culture where parents just want their kids to join big companies.”
Babson frequently fields a different kind of request, according to Babson’s Eisenman. Since the recession, the school has developed programs in response to an increasing corporate reliance on entrepreneurial principles.
“[Before the recession] our corporate clients would say that they didn't want people to learn entrepreneurial skills because they didn't want people to leave and compete,” Eisenman says. “In 2008, suddenly, corporations were coming to us and saying we notice entrepreneurs thrive in times of great hardship. Can you teach our employees skills to make our company survive?”
But although entrepreneurship executive education programs are increasingly specific to students' needs and the principles of entrepreneurship, Eisenman says she thinks many entrepreneurship programs could be even more comprehensive and focused.
“More and more schools are adopting entrepreneurship programs, but here's the challenge,” Eisenman says. “Everyone is envious of start-ups, and so schools are offering entrepreneurship programs and courses, but not many schools are offering the full range of integrated curriculum around entrepreneurship.”