Monday, August 25, 2008
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Learning to Think Outside the Box
Babson College leads the way in entrepreneurship education

Roger Ward Babson was a precocious child. He was described by his parents as an “off horse” because he did things differently than other children. As a young boy, he worked tirelessly on his family’s farm in Gloucester, Massachusetts, finding extraordinary inspiration in mundane duties like plowing the soil, milking cows, and laboring in the hay-fields. In his 1950 autobiography Actions and Reactions, Babson looks back fondly on these formative years working the land; they fertilized an unfailing work ethic and a strong sense of entrepreneurial purpose. He eventually left farming life behind for a career in finance, but he credits those early days as a motivating force—even more so than his education at MIT—behind his numerous business successes later.

As a businessman, Roger was the consummate entrepreneur—a thinker, a doer, a risk-taker, an adapter. Among his many enduring achievements, Babson College is arguably his most lasting and most successful. If he had lived to see just how much the college, which he founded in 1919 as a practical business school (originally called the Babson Institute and renamed Babson College in 1969—two years after his death), would come to embrace his exemplary life of innovation, he would be proud of the entrepreneurial paths it has forged for many.

During Roger’s lifetime, entrepreneurs were seen as self-taught, self-made individualists who possessed elusive skills. That entrepreneurship couldn’t be taught was the prevailing mindset of his day. It wasn’t until the 1970s, a time when the nation’s growth became dependent on new ventures in emerging industries, that the concept of teaching entrepreneurship was given credence within academe. Babson College was one of the first schools to stake its claim in this up-and-coming discipline, a move that has certainly paid off. Today, the college, which grants BS degrees through its undergraduate program, MBA and custom MS and MBA degrees through the F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College, and conducts executive education programs through Babson Executive Education, is considered by many to be one of the finest institutions in the world for entrepreneurship education.

One of the college’s most enduring foundations to the study of entrepreneurship is the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, a 6,000-square-foot building with teaching, research, and office space. Completed in 1998, the center, named after its generous endower, Arthur M. Blank (one of the co-founders of The Home Depot), cuts across all three schools—undergraduate, graduate, and executive education—and offers curricula and programming at all of the three levels. Academic centers for entrepreneurial studies are not necessarily a new idea (their beginnings date back to the mid-1980s), but as Janet Strimaitis, Associate Director of the Blank Center and a 1981 graduate from Babson’s evening MBA program, explains, “we strongly believe this was the first-ever center for entrepreneurship in the world that had its own building.”

The center also engages in groundbreaking, world-class research, and boasts the largest entrepreneurship faculty in the world: 11 full-time faculty, 31 part-time, and ten shared with other academic divisions of the college. “To have a 50-plus entrepreneurship faculty for an institution of Babson’s size is remarkable,” says Strimaitis, who also touts the entrepreneurship/management department’s (as well as the entire school’s) commitment to blended faculty—a sort of melting pot of academics and real-world practitioners. Nan Langowitz, a resident of Wellesley since 1986 and a full-time management and entrepreneurship professor who worked on Wall Street prior to her academic career, seconds this blended-faculty approach.

“One thing that distinguishes Babson is its focus on the connections between practice and what happens in the classroom. I think that’s attributable to Roger Babson. That was his vision, that this was a specialty business school, a practical place, but it’s also a place where people are trying to stretch their minds and learning how to think creatively about decision-making and problem-solving,” says Langowitz.

The center’s undergraduate academic program runs the gamut, from unique experiential opportunities to more typical classroom-based learning. While most of the entrepreneurship courses kick in as electives during junior and senior years, all freshmen are required to take Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship (FME), a year-long course (considered to be one of the college’s flagship programs) in which students simulate a real business environment by creating and managing their own business. “Similar freshman courses at other schools do exist, but we really have some unique features, including the year-long nature, the entrepreneurial focus, and the requirement for everyone,” says Strimaitis.

In the graduate school, entrepreneurship is also integrated into the curriculum as well as woven into various co-curricular programs. One of the center’s most distinctive offerings is the Entrepreneurship Intensity Track (EIT), a set of elective courses for MBA students whose goal is to launch their business ideas by the time they graduate. Many of the students selected to participate in EIT are eventually awarded Hatchery space, a rent-free workspace conducive to sharing ideas and information among student teams, faculty, executives-in-residence, and visiting entrepreneurs, and a place where students can run their businesses between classes.

While Babson’s distinguished Arthur M. Blank Center provides unparalleled entrepreneurship programming and experiences, students are also heavily involved in creating their own opportunities to engage in entrepreneurial activity. There are many student-run clubs both in the undergraduate and graduate schools dedicated to the field of entrepreneurship. Babson Global Outreach through Entrepreneurship (BGOE) is one such organization. BGOE offers an annual opportunity for current graduate and undergraduate students to travel to a developing country and work directly with the local entrepreneurs in order to create sustainable business models that will contribute to the economic health of the region.

This year’s two-week expedition to Uganda was considered a great success. In addition to counseling local townspeople about basic business concepts, Babson students worked with owners of small-scale entrepreneurial ventures. “We taught them how to develop ideas and made recommendations on how to improve and grow their businesses,” says junior Matt Boynton. “It was the most rewarding experience of my life.”

Entrepreneurship really is a way of life for Babson students and faculty. But the truth is that many students don’t come to Babson to launch a business. Peter Rovick, an MBA student and long-time Wellesley resident who worked for both small technology startups and large financial firms before coming to Babson, has no foreseeable plans to start his own business after graduating; he does, however, believe strongly in the transcendent and limitless power of entrepreneurship education.

Roger Ward Babson, Founder of Babson College.

“To me, entrepreneurship is about creativity, innovation, and a drive to make improvements to existing conditions,” Rovick remarks. “Entrepreneurship is a mindset in which one is driven to ask questions: Why are things the way they are? What if we did this instead? How can this be improved? These questions lead to innovation and improvement.”

The entrepreneurial mindset Rovick extols is one that the entire entrepreneurship faculty preaches in their classrooms. Dennis Ceru, a self-proclaimed “dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur,” full-time adjunct lecturer, and Wellesley resident since 1992, believes that entrepreneurship is “a way of looking at the world.” Many of Ceru’s Evening MBA students are already employed and not looking to launch startups, and he’s certainly okay with that. “I encourage them to not quit their day jobs and start new businesses, because we need them to continue to manage and run these already established businesses. But I also tell them they need to develop new ways of thinking, acting and implementing in their businesses—and those skills are the same skills that entrepreneurs need to start a new venture,” Ceru says.

This sort of thinking outside the box within organizations is seen as a necessity in today’s competitive and continually evolving business world. Companies want to know how to infuse the spirit of entrepreneurial inventiveness into their short- and long-term projects, and it’s why they often turn to Babson Executive Education (BEE), an integral division of the college that is consistently ranked among the top executive education providers in the world.

Siemens AG, one of the world’s largest and most respected companies in the field of electrical engineering and electronics, recently sought out BEE’s expertise. In an environment that was being driven by one disruptive technology after another, the global high tech company decided its managers and senior engineers needed to be more entrepreneurial and identify and execute on real opportunities. To aid that objective, BEE created a “Corporate Entrepreneurship” program that helped Siemens’ leaders identify, shape, and implement new business opportunities. The results were astounding.

“The program has paid for itself many times over through the commercialization of business opportunities that participants successfully developed during the program, and afterward,” said Elaine Eisenman, Dean of BEE. “In fact, there is a 60 percent success rate for new products and services launched as a result of this program.”

Roger Babson may not have envisioned his small-town institute burgeoning into the internationally-renowned school that it is today. But then again, he was a futurist and an optimist, always looking ahead to a horizon full of possibilities, never satisfied with the status quo. He wrote in his autobiography that “America needs that spiritual creative power which causes men to want to pull the cart instead of ride in the cart—to work, think, promote, and build… .”

Educating students and company clients to be the entrepreneurial leaders of tomorrow—to be the ones pulling that proverbial cart—has been and always will be one of Babson College’s main priorities. Considering the breadth of first-rate resources, world-class faculty, and distinctive academic programming, Babson seems well poised to launch the next generation of individuals with the academic grounding and entrepreneurial spirit to launch and guide new ideas.

Who would have thought that an “off horse” farm boy from Gloucester would become the inspiration behind such a powerful place of learning?

Babson College Extras

 

 

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