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Expanding the University’s course offerings in entrepreneurship will be a priority initiative for new provost David Lee GS ’99, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 told the ‘Prince’ in September.
Lee’s initiative comes amid a climate for entrepreneurship on campus that has evolved significantly in recent years. The University currently offers nine entrepreneurship classes through the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, according to the Keller Center website. Although the administration plans to add courses, Dean of the School of Engineering Vincent Poor ’77 said in September that he does not envision the creation of a certificate. Unlike other fields, entrepreneurship does not require credentialing, he said.
The University has offered courses in entrepreneurship since the late 1990s. In recent years, these offerings have expanded to include social entrepreneurship and experiential offerings, “where students actually get an opportunity to experience entrepreneurial activity firsthand,” Poor said.
Michael Zhang ’08, cofounder of men’s apparel service Trumaker, said entrepreneurial culture at Princeton was weak throughout his time as an undergraduate.
“In 2008 and 2007, when I was graduating, you know, when people were thinking about career choices, none of my engineering friends were even thinking about, you know, going in and starting something for themselves, or forming teams that could have the capability to do that,” Zhang said.
However, the evolution of this culture since has been “really phenomenal,” in the words of visiting professor of entrepreneurship John Danner, who currently teaches EGR498: Ventures to Address Global Challenges. He also taught at the University in 2010 and in 2008 as the James Wei Visiting Professor for Entrepreneurship.
The Wei Visiting Professor is one of the recent additions to the entrepreneurship program. Inaugurated in 2007, the endowment brings professors with both real-world and academic entrepreneurial experience to the University for semester- and year-long appointments.
Danner said he supports expansion of entrepreneurial classes so long as it does not interfere with the University’s larger mission.
“The crown jewels of a place like Princeton are the breadth, depth and quality of a true liberal arts education that cares less about immediate practical applications of knowledge that students get and focuses more on encouraging students to explore the full range of their interests and curiosity,” Danner said, noting that, for most students, the practical applications of knowledge can wait.
The current program at Princeton lends itself easily to the liberal arts, Lorraine Marchand, the 2013 James Wei professor, said. Marchand has held executive positions at multiple private and public companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb and the National Institutes of Health. She teaches EGR495: Developing Commercially Viable Technologies.
In terms of her students’ quality of thinking, questions and problem-solving, Marchand said her undergraduates were equivalent to the MBA- and graduate-level students she has taught at other universities. Marchand said she expects Princeton entrepreneurs to have an advantage in the field after graduation.
“I think they’re going to have an insight and a perspective on innovation and on the commercialization of products that probably most students wouldn’t have integrated in their education,” she said.
The gradual expansion in curricular offerings has been accompanied by a surge in extracurricular interest in entrepreneurship. Princeton Entrepreneurship Club Co-President Rishi Narang ’15 attributed the recent jump in club membership to multiple factors. On the national scale, he said, the prominence of the Internet, mobile devices and tech companies have drawn students’ attention, while the increased number of E-Club events have exposed Princeton students to entrepreneurship.
Keller Center courses enrich the extracurricular side of entrepreneurship, Narang said.
“Either through case studies, or through lectures, or through your professors, you get to see the way other people ultimately have taken the approach of entrepreneurship to approach solving a problem or coming up with an idea,” he explained. “You’re exposed to a lot of cool stories and people who are willing to guide you through their takeaway, through their learning experiences.”
Margaret Wang ’14, an East Asian studies major and student in Danner’s course, said the lessons from the class are valuable beyond the business world and will enhance her career in academia.
“This is one of the few classes where I can directly see the skills being applied to real life. We have all these poster pitch competitions, we have to interview real start-ups and we have to do all these real-life interactions with people,” Wang said.
Other suggestions for improving the entrepreneurial environment on campus include asking Career Services to offer greater accommodations for start-ups, which cannot afford to “play the usual recruitment game,” according to Danner.
Marchand suggested a set of core courses to teach problem-solving, leadership and teamwork skills, as well as to explore historical, economic and sociological perspectives on entrepreneurship.
However, Zhang indicated that students hoping to impress start-ups should seek out opportunities beyond the classroom or large tech companies.
“If they come with a portfolio of side projects, then that really tells you they have an entrepreneurial mindset, and they’re willing to take on all kinds of responsibilities within an engineering role, and they have a deep hunger to learn more about the kind of business that you’re going to be operating,” he said.
Senior writer Catherine Duazo contributed reporting.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the class year of Rishi Narang ’15. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.