(Un)Schooled: How Young Adults Are Setting Sights on Entrepreneurship—Both In and Out of Traditional Colleges
At the age of 12, Dale Stephens became home schooled—rather, “unschooled,” as he likes to call it. Throughout his “unschooled” years, Stephens learned how learn more efficiently by shaping his own education.
A few years later, after just six months in college, Stephens decided to leave in order to pursue his dream and share his “unschooled” approach to education. Thus, UnCollege was born.
“In order for schools to think about supporting and encouraging entrepreneurship you need to think about the mindset they are encouraging in their students,” says Stephens. “Are they encouraging them to take a mindset that’s focused on having to meet certain requirements in a major or are they encouraging them to take a large problem, break it down into smaller pieces and understand which pieces of that problem really matter to that particular case?”
Despite its name, the message behind UnCollege is not that college is bad, but rather that students have the ability to ensure that their higher education will be an investment worth making.
“We think about UnCollege as a resource for self-directed learners for people who want to make sure that they are making the most and maximizing their educational experience—whether that’s in a traditional institution or outside of it,” Stephens said.
Eager to Learn—However They Can
The quality of an entrepreneurial education doesn’t depend on what institution a student attends. For an entrepreneur, after all, learning is not synonymous with good grades and a degree.
Instead, the key to entrepreneurship is self-directed learning—and it all comes back to how students choose to use the resources available to them both inside and outside the classroom.
“Learning doesn’t just happen inside the walls of the classroom,” says Danielle Strachman, program director of the Thiel Fellowship. “Most of our education for our entire lives happens outside of those walls.”
Stephens is an apt example: When he was 19, Stephens’ innovative approach to education caught the attention of the Thiel Fellowship, which selected him to be a part of the Foundation’s inaugural 20 Under 20 program. The initiative, launched by technological entrepreneur, investor and PayPal Cofounder Peter Thiel, gives $100,000 to a select group of entrepreneurs to spend two years developing their ideas into businesses.
“One of the ways that we think about the Thiel Fellowship is very much inline with something like an independent study program, where instead of us coming in and saying, ‘Oh, all entrepreneurs need X, Y and Z,’ we work with each person to see what it is that they need specifically and how to get at it,” Strachman said.
When Strachman started her own tutoring business after graduating college, she noticed that the home-schooled students generally seemed to be more eager to learn compared to their public- and private-school counterparts. The reason behind this, she said, is not because they were more academically advanced or talented, but simply because the home schooled students were accustomed to being able to choose what they wanted to study. By contrast, the public and private school students, who never had a choice in what they were expected to learn, were less engaged.
As a result of this experience, Strachman launched her own public charter school for K-8th graders called the Innovations Academy. Since it opened in 2008, the school has helped students develop self-motivated learning by providing education based on their individual interests.
“One of our key tenets is relationship-based teaching, and we think if you don’t have a relationship with someone and you don’t know what their individual hopes, dreams and needs are, then how can you truly serve them?” Strachman said. “That is also embedded within the Fellowship.”
According to Strachman, there has never been a better time to take a self-directed approach to learning because so many resources are available online. Zana, for example, provides free video lessons geared toward equipping entrepreneurs with the skills and advice they need to succeed.
While there are a wealth of digital resources available outside the classroom, universities can still play a vital role in entrepreneurship education. When Bethany Monaghan started attending the University of Maryland, College Park, she didn’t think of herself as an entrepreneur. However, through her college experience, she realized that her wants and dreams reflected the mindset of an entrepreneur.
“I think college cultivates that desire,” Monaghan said. “I can’t say that I would be an entrepreneur if I never stepped into the University of Maryland.”
Monaghan has always had a passion for nutrition and health, so when she realized that she was having a hard time finding healthy food on-the-go to accommodate her busy college schedule, she had an idea.
Through the resources and programs provided by UMD’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, Monaghan developed her own startup, Bethany’s Organics. Through her business, which provides food products that combine nutrition with convenience, Monaghan found her entrepreneurial drive. As she talked about entrepreneurship in the small lounge of the Dingman Center, her face lit up with the passion she frequently referred to–an innate passion that can only be fostered, not taught.
The Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship provides student entrepreneurs, such as Monaghan, with the resources they need to pursue their dreams, bringing nontraditional learning methods to a traditional campus.
“What we have done at the Dingman Center is create a program, a curriculum, called the Fearless Founders program,” said Adam VanWagner, a UMD alumnus who has returned to serve as the Dingman Center’s community and student programs manager. “This three-stage curriculum helps students bring their idea from the idea stage all the way to launching a business.”
Through the three stages of the program–Idea Shell, Hatch and Terp Startup–student entrepreneurs from various majors and educational backgrounds are given both the guidance and freedom they need to test their ideas and determine whether or not it’s a solution worth developing.
In order to save students valuable time and money, the program is modeled after the Lean Startup methodology, which encourages entrepreneurs to verify the workability of their solution before going through the whole business development process.
“Ten years ago, there was a perception of how to start a business and that’s been completely turned on it’s head,” VanWagner said. “We’re teaching that new methodology, the Lean Startup methodology, to give any student who has a vision for starting a business the best chance of success.”
In addition to the Fearless Founders program, the Dingman Center provides other opportunities for student entrepreneurs to network, receive feedback from mentors and even earn capital. With all these resources available, though, there is still a need for self-directed learning.
Initially, Monaghan was studying health education and dietetics, but she decided to change her major to communications in order to build specific skills, such as public speaking, needed to run a successful business. She found that there wasn’t an all-encompassing degree that combined her passions—so, as entrepreneurs do, she created her own solution to her problem.
“Say you’re good at writing and you’re good at painting, but you’re also good at public speaking,” Monaghan said. “There’s no major for that, so that’s entrepreneurship–you build your own.
Monaghan isn’t the only one to take the entrepreneurial approach to education. Justin Lichtenstaedter structured his semesters at George Washington University based on what skills he felt he needed to launch Yapper, a location-based chatting app.
“It was based on what I was going through at the time,” Lichtenstaedter said. “I only wanted to take classes that I wanted to apply to Yapper.”
After graduating with an MBA in 2014, he used those skills to continue his business.
Balancing Life as a Student and Business Owner
Despite having to build his own curriculum in college, Lichtenstaedter says college is a great place to launch a startup. The safe, campus environment enables students to take risks that they might not be able to take after college when they have additional responsibilities, such as family and rent, to take into consideration.
“College is safe; being an entrepreneur is not,” Lichtenstaedter said. “Just because there’s a problem, doesn’t mean it’s a business, so find a problem, and use your college degree and classes to figure out if that problem is a business.”
Even with college serving as a safety net, student entrepreneurs still need to be willing to make some sacrifices. UMD graduates Scott Block and Justin Searles saw this among their peers in college as many student entrepreneurs had to balance classwork and running a business.
“Some of the smartest kids I know are literally taking one or two classes a semester just so they have time to really do what they want and work on their ideas,” said Searles.
That’s part of the reason why Block and Searles cofounded VentureBoard, a resource for student entrepreneurs to get connected to tools and networking opportunities available on their campuses. When they started developing the startup, Block had to switch his academic focus from computer science to business so that he had more time to devote to VentureBoard. Even with the switch, it was hard to balance being an entrepreneur with being a student.
“I graduated with a decent GPA but it definitely would’ve been higher if I wasn’t trying to run a company,” Block said.