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Course of study Colleges embrace entrepreneurship

September 2, 2018

The word “entrepreneur” evokes images of a small-business owner or one attempting to bring an invention to market, but that only begins to scratch the surface, said college professors who teach in the burgeoning field of study.

“There is no textbook for entrepreneurship,” Carl Scheraga, professor of business strategy and technology management at Fairfield University, said. “They exist, of course, but that is not the way to teach entrepreneurship. You have to hit the streets and see what works and what doesn’t.”

Nor is there a tidy definition for the word.

“Entrepreneurship is not a career, but a mind-set,” Pauline Assenza, associate professor of management and small-business entrepreneurship at Western Connecticut State University’s Ancell School of Business, said. “We are not necessarily preparing students to open a business right after graduation. Entrepreneurship is also recognizing the opportunity to be who you are while working for someone else who is willing to pay you.”

Entrepreneurial skills such as thinking creatively, being innovative and willing to take risks are highly sought after in the workplace, she added.

“They identify a problem and take a creative approach to solving it,” Assenza said.

While courses in entrepreneurship have existed for decades, demand has reached the point that nearly every college or university in the state offers coursework and have centers devoted to entrepreneurship and innovation. Many universities offer majors and minors in entrepreneurship.

‘Where stuff happens’

The business management major at Fairfield University offers an entrepreneurship concentration in which students must complete two of the three courses: social entrepreneurship, technology ventures and managing a family business. Fairfield University also has an entrepreneur student club and Scheraga said the annual entrepreneurship competition, the Fairfield StartUp Showcase, is booming in popularity. The school is building a Center for Entrepreneurship in the Dolan School building that will open next year.

Western Connecticut State University offers two courses in entrepreneurship. Assenza is also the adviser for the student club ERIC, or Entrepreneurship Research Innovation Creativity. The school’s new, state-of-the-art entrepreneur center is called ERIC @ The Garage, a nod to the many businesses that have started in a garage.

“When you walk in you get the feeling that this is a place where stuff happens,” Assenza said.

About 35 students take courses in entrepreneurship at WestConn, she said, and ERIC has more than 200 members from a wide variety of majors.

David Levinson, president of Norwalk Community College, recently signed a pledge with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship, which commits the school to “encourage economic growth through entrepreneurship.” NCC offers courses that are open to students and the public alike through its Entrepreneurs Institute.

“For the entrepreneur, the more they know to get started, the more likely they are to operate a successful company and avoid those sort of all-too-common kinds of failure,” Stephen Mersereau, lead instructor for NCC’s entrepreneur program, told Hearst Media Connecticut in a previous interview. “There’s a tremendous amount of ideas and innovation and excitement, and what we want to do is help them translate it into a successful business.”

The University of Bridgeport’s Student Entrepreneur Center at the Ernest C. Trefz School of Business is open to all UB students and “aims to accelerate the successful development of start-ups.” UB also offers a minor in small business management and entrepreneurship.

The University of Connecticut has robust entrepreneurial offerings through courses and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

New mind-set

Scheraga said students are drawn to entrepreneurship because it creates career options and allows flexibility in their careers. Many students, he said, do not want to graduate and work for the same company for 30 or 40 years like previous generations.

The 2008 recession turned a lot of students toward entrepreneurship, Scherago said, as they watched their parents lose jobs they held for decades.

“There’s been a psychological shift and I understand why,” he said. “A lot of graduates see themselves as independent contractors who will work somewhere for three to five years and then move on. Entrepreneurship is not just a guy building bicycles at his house. It’s become very sophisticated.”

Assenza agrees: “What we have discovered is that students are very pragmatic. Most people become entrepreneurs and innovators to be able to take a risk. They also want to feel good about making a difference.”

Anju Gautam is the president of the ERIC student club at WestConn. She came to the U.S. from Nepal three years ago and works with several nonprofit organizations to help address the homelessness crisis in her native country. The management major said her entrepreneurial skills help her collaborate and think creatively about reaching goals.

“Everything we do here (at ERIC) empowers students. There are resources and support,” said Gautam, who wants to start her own business when she graduates. “You have to have a passion and enthusiasm. Whatever you do, you have to support the community. Businesses will thrive more if you help others.”

Scheraga said entrepreneurship will play an increasingly important role in keeping the U.S. competitive in a global economy.

“I hope that stays on the radar of politicians because it needs to be supported,” he said.

The writer may be reached at cbosak@hearstmediact.com; 203-731-3338

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