Education for entrepreneurs?

Roving around the web this week, I came across Inc. magazine’s 2012 list of “America’s Coolest Young Entrepreneurs,” a feature in which they highlight thirty up-and-coming companies in a variety of areas and profile the founders, all of whom are under the age of 30.

Because I’m a geek about college stuff, I decided to do a little research and see where Inc.’s group of “cool kids” had done their undergraduate work. I couldn’t find this information for all of the individuals highlighted in the article, but what I did find was interesting.

Of those for whom I found information about their undergraduate schools, their launching pads were split pretty evenly between public institutions (not always the flagship campuses in the particular state systems, though) and Ivy League or other highly selective universities. A few had attended institutions offering specialized curricula (in the arts or in business, for example) and a few had dropped out of college in order to pursue their business opportunities.  I was surprised that only one person had attended a liberal arts and sciences college. (Way to go, Amber Case, from Lewis & Clark College! A shout out, too, for the University of Colorado at Boulder, which, along with Yale University, had the largest number of graduates represented on this year’s list.)

Another interesting finding was that several of the individuals had pursued undergraduate majors that lay in the liberal arts – subjects ranging from anthropology to history, philosophy, and women’s studies. (That helped to restore my faith in the value of a liberal arts education.) Of course, majors in computer science, business, or some type of engineering were very well represented among this year’s honorees, as one would expect.

This is a very small and decidedly not random sample of individuals, so it’s impossible to draw any firm conclusions about educational backgrounds that contribute to this type of entrepreneurial success. My limited research did lead me to several questions, though:

Why is there just the one graduate from a liberal arts and sciences college on the list? Does this suggest that students who attend liberal arts and sciences schools don’t have the same kind of entrepreneurial verve as those who attend larger institutions? Is this result an artifact of the methodology used by the magazine and its writers? Or is it just a blip in this year’s list – if I went back over lists from previous years, would the roster of undergraduate alma maters look different?

How and why did those individuals with traditional liberal arts majors make the jump onto the entrepreneurial track? Who or what gave them the nudge toward the business world?

At the risk of oversimplifying, this look at the undergraduate careers of the 2012 honorees also raises a variant of the old “nature vs. nurture” debate: did these individuals already have the entrepreneurial “right stuff” before they got to college, or was it something they developed while they were there? Doubtless it’s a combination of the two, (with a healthy portion of luck and timing thrown in!) However, when so many high school students and their parents currently seem to believe that their lives will be set if they can just gain admission to a college with high name recognition, (i.e., they’re placing their bets on the “nurture” side of the equation) we would do well not to underestimate the role that “nature” plays.

This brief exercise with the “30 Under 30 list” also puts me in mind of a line from the movie “Ratatouille.” This small sample does seem to bear out the words of the critic Anton Ego,

“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

What do readers think?

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