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SMALL BUSINESS STRATEGIES | EDUCATION

Learning to Earn

Entrepreneurs Are Packing Classrooms to Get Skills to Improve Their Fortunes

October 14, 1998|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Conventional wisdom says that entrepreneurs are born, not made, and that the best classroom is the office, workshop or factory.

But don't tell that to Los Angeles fashion designer Brian McKinney. The man who has dressed Montel Williams and a stable of other Hollywood clotheshorses is back on campus this evening listening to a marketing lecture at USC.

He and 22 other local garment makers are participating in the university's apparel FastTrac entrepreneurial training, a sort of academic boot camp for business owners trying to grow their firms. In 12 weeks of night school, McKinney will develop a strategic plan for his clothing business, a move he hopes will take his fashions beyond Hollywood and into finer men's stores everywhere.

"I started this business five years ago by the seat of my pants," McKinney said. "Now I want to learn to plan, manage and grow my business in a methodical way."

Looking for a road map for a new economy that no longer guarantees lifetime employment, Americans are crowding into classes on how to start or build their own firms--and challenging the notion that entrepreneurship can't be taught.

From grammar school to graduate school and beyond, a nationwide surge in entrepreneurial education is changing the way Americans are preparing themselves for work.

Entrepreneurial studies, a lonely academic outpost at a handful of colleges 20 years ago, has become one of the hottest fields in business education. More than 1,000 post-secondary schools offer at least one course on starting or running a small business, with classes oversubscribed at the nation's most prestigious university programs.

"We have three students for every seat," said Nancy Humphries, director of a private foundation that's helping recruit instructors and bolster entrepreneurship curriculum at the University of Texas at Austin. "We don't have enough talent to teach them all."

Programs to vault welfare recipients, the disabled and the unemployed into self-employment are altering traditional notions of job training. Meanwhile, philanthropies such as the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation have launched efforts to bring entrepreneurial education to the masses. Even Junior Achievement, once an after-school shop class for budding capitalists, has revamped its curriculum for a generation of youngsters more interested in building companies than spice racks. In the process, Junior Achievement has become the fastest-growing nonprofit in the country, with more than 3.2 million participants.

"It's nothing short of a revolution in education," said Robert Ronstadt, who teaches entrepreneurship at Pepperdine University. "It reflects a fundamental shift in our economy and our culture."

If the 1960s were the Age of Aquarius and the '80s the decade of greed, the late '90s have usurped some traits of both to spawn the age of the entrepreneur.

Americans are launching start-ups at a frenzied pace, spurred by corporate downsizing, outsourcing, low-cost technology and a bustling economy. About 3.5 million new enterprises--from basement workshops to manufacturing plants--were formed in 1995, according to a survey by the Washington-based National Federation of Independent Business. New business incorporations have doubled over the last 20 years.

Empire builders such as Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson have supplanted scavengers such as Carl Icahn and Michael Milken as the movers and shakers of our times. Small-business publications are flourishing, while TV shows such as "Money Hunt" and "Small Business 2000" celebrate the virtues of plucky entrepreneurs. In a 1994 Gallup Poll, seven in 10 high school students surveyed said they'd be interested in starting companies.

"It doesn't take too many billionaires like Bill Gates to get the message out that entrepreneurship is better than the lottery," said Scott Kunkel, director of the Family Business Institute at the University of San Diego. "But there's an ethical component as well. We're seeing kids who want to build something of value for society."

Small wonder that more Americans are looking for guidance on how to join the ranks of the self-employed. But can entrepreneurship really be taught?

Educators say the answer is yes--and no.

Although schools would love to claim that Entrepreneurship 101 could turn any risk-averse sluggard into the next Ted Turner, it just ain't so, says Russ Leatherby, founding director of the Ralph W. Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Ethics at Chapman University in Orange. "We get asked all the time whether you can teach this stuff or whether you're born with it," Leatherby said. "The simple answer is that personal characteristics like innovation, perseverance and creativity you're born with."

What education can do, Leatherby and others say, is provide motivated entrepreneurs with a supportive environment, business tools and a process to fix problems before they sink the business.

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