Looking at college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs, many aspiring entrepreneurs may be considering whether a degree is worth the time and money. If you’ve got an idea for the Next Big Thing, after all, why do you need Intro to Marketing?
Not so fast, says Steve Blank, a serial entrepreneur himself and a professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford, Berkeley and Columbia.
“Of course there’s value in a college education,” says Blank, who has 20 years of startup experience. “Even if you’re the smartest entrepreneur, someday if your company actually makes money, you may want to know what an income statement, balance sheet and cash flow is.
“And yes, you might be smart enough to go figure it out yourself, but it would have been great to go to school and get a lecture on basic accounting,” he says.
And while untested college kids may think they’ve already got what it takes to build the next Apple, Babson College professor Andrew C. Corbett says the example set by entrepreneurs like Jobs and Zuckerberg (and fellow dropouts Bill Gates and Richard Branson) simply isn’t realistic.
“All of those folks that you mention – they’re outliers. They’re just not the norm. Certainly Jobs, Zuckerberg, Gates … these are incredible, off-the-charts outliers,” says Corbett, who also serves as the faculty director of the John E. & Alice L. Butler Venture Accelerator at Babson.
He says the industry and media are guilty of romanticizing these success stories, making their choices seem like reasonable options for college-aged entrepreneurs.
What College Can Offer the Next Zuckerberg
Aside from the practical skills and fundamental pieces of startup knowledge -- like how to legally set up a company, or divide equity between partners -- Corbett says the network that some colleges provide can be invaluable to entrepreneurs.
“If you choose your school wisely, there are certainly places that will give you a huge jumpstart,” says Corbett, both in terms of developing relationships with likeminded students and in taking advantage of well-connected alumni.
Blank suggests that the disdain for college among entrepreneurs comes from a history of teaching entrepreneurship the wrong way.
“We’ve been treating entrepreneurship like a job, with a certain set of skills,” says Blank.“Entrepreneurs, that is founders … are closer to artists than anybody else. And if you think about artists, they see things that other people don’t. They’re driven by passion and they’re driven by vision, and they’re driven by the innate desire to take something inside of them and make it real.”
Looking at the way art schools craft painters or sculptors, Blank says entrepreneurs should be taught theory, but also be given the opportunity to really engage in entrepreneurship.
“Today, most schools are almost embarrassed to give entrepreneurs time to actually practice their craft,” says Blank. “I think that’s going to change.”
The Best Majors for the Startup Field
Both Blank and Corbett stress that entrepreneurs can come from any background. “What you can do well – that’s where you begin your entrepreneurial journey,” says Corbett.
That said, Corbett says students with backgrounds in engineering or computer science are very in-demand with both startups and venture capital firms. And if you can speak the native language of a country with a quickly growing market, more power to you.
“Someone being wise to what the future holds … a major or minor in Chinese or a language like that is probably not a bad idea,” says Corbett.
As for Blank, he says all college students should consider taking classes in programming, regardless of what sort of role they want to have in a company.
“Unless you’ve taken a programming class … you are going to be at a disadvantage in management for the rest of your career,” he says.
“It’s like working [for] General Motors in management and never having spent a summer on the assembly line. If you don’t understand the core elements of how your product is built and delivered, you just can’t have a fingertip feel on your business,” says Blank.