On the surface, young student entrepreneurs on college campuses might look like any other students. But delve a little deeper and their patterns might be markedly different: perhaps they’re balancing an academic course load with working at a startup, for example, or busy founding a company of their own in a field completely outside of their declared major. Some students may leave school entirely before their four years are up to pursue their startup aspirations full time.
Until now, colleges haven’t known how to find this invisible demographic—and for good reason.
“Universities have not traditionally focused on entrepreneurship as a career path,” says Bekhzod Khoshimov, a Ph.D. student in management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business. “So what explains the fact that some students want to become entrepreneurs?”
Khoshimov is part of a team that works on a campus-wide survey on entrepreneurship started by Jon Eckhardt, an associate professor of management and human resources at WSB. Eckhardt has been analyzing the data from the first three years of the survey, 2015 through 2017. Along with Khoshimov, who joined in 2016, the project has expanded to now include Brent Goldfarb, a professor at the University of Maryland; UW–Madison economics graduate students Carol Liu, Kai Gu; and undergraduate math student Rebecca Wang. Together, they are working to discover what characteristics and experiences make some more inclined toward entrepreneurship.
“We started surveying all of the students on campus to get a sense of how many entrepreneurs are out there,” says Eckhardt, who is also the executive director of WSB’s Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship. “The numbers we got back were unexpected. It was new territory; the academic literature on university–based entrepreneurship has focused on the patent–focused process of technology transfer,” he recalls. “While I suspected a strong presence of student entrepreneurs on campus, I was surprised to see how many or our students self-identified as founders of an operating company.”
Eckhardt had used funding from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation—awarded to top scholars in the advancement of entrepreneurial research and education—to initiate the research. Encouraged by the high survey numbers, he applied for and received additional funding in 2018 from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private foundation focused on education and entrepreneurship. The grant is providing funding to support the development of an analytics platform that is studying how campus entrepreneurial ecosystems can drive economic growth, and in the process, advance a greater understanding of entrepreneurship. The goal is to use modern data techniques to improve entrepreneurship programs on campus and contribute to the scientific literature.
Khoshimov says the survey allows them to observe salient patterns in the data during a brief but key period of time.
He suspects there’s “some kind of nudge” that happens during those critical college years. “That’s essentially what we’re trying to uncover—whether some aspects of the college experience have any effect on students’ entrepreneurial pursuits or aspirations.”
They also hope to better understand what’s behind shifts in a student’s attitude toward entrepreneurship, and ideally catch aspiring entrepreneurs earlier in the process while they are still in school.
“Imagine in 2015, a student has an idea for an entrepreneurial project, but he is not currently self-identifying on our survey as an entrepreneur,” Khoshimov explains. “We survey this student again in 2016 and the student reports, ‘Okay, I’m an entrepreneur now.’ What has changed? Maybe within that year, the student has taken a class with an entrepreneurial professor. Alternatively, a freshman in 2015 might respond that she has an idea for a startup; in 2017, that same individual might report that she plans to look for a job instead. We are investigating what causes that change.”
‘We’re overlooking this huge potential’
Traditionally, Eckhardt says, universities tend to think about economic development and entrepreneurship as something that starts with an invention in a lab. “This is an important way that universities improve society. However, we are learning that students are also an important source of entrepreneurship—and their journey often does not start in a lab. This work will help us better understand how universities can better incubate that talent.”
“The goal is to help universities be more entrepreneurial and the focus of this work at the moment is student entrepreneurship,” Eckhardt states. “We’re overlooking this huge potential. The project is designed to help universities like ours use data to better understand this student space.”
One of the challenges of entrepreneurship is that there’s no single path to the destination, no guaranteed formula. On the federal level, for example, no occupation code exists for “entrepreneur,” Eckhardt says.
“People basically know if they want to become a doctor or not; they’ve been around them all their lives. Entrepreneurship as a career path is different. There’s a lot of ambiguity and lack of awareness,” he says.
Academic entrepreneurship study results, 2015-2017
Eckhardt’s survey established new benchmark data. In the first three years, the survey garnered 23,805 responses—a 21 percent response rate—and represented 143 majors across the UW–Madison campus. Among all participants, 5,175 students had taken at least one WSB entrepreneurship course in the past 3.5 years.
To be included in the survey, respondents had to answer affirmatively to one of two key questions: “Are you currently a founder of an operating company?” and “Are you planning to start a venture within 24 months?”
The 2017 survey revealed the following figures:
- 173 students indicated they were founders of a company
- 263 students indicated they were forming a company
- 527 students indicated they were working at a company that was less than five years old
For Eckhardt, these numbers, though already high, represent significant opportunity.
“We have nearly 40,000 people here at UW–Madison. We may be able to have more high-quality student startups if we found entrepreneurs earlier and provided them a set of experiences that would help them identify and grow as entrepreneurs,” Eckhardt says. “Given our current numbers and success rates, the potential is just phenomenal.”
To help engage student entrepreneurs and encourage their success, the survey also asks if respondents want to hear from Eckhardt’s team again.
Many students are not aware that places like the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship are available to them, Eckhardt says. The survey results help Eckhardt and Khoshimov connect students to campus resources, including other student entrepreneurs like them.
“It was hard for us to believe, but all of these people from across campus, such as history and engineering, just did not know that we exist,” he says. “Through the survey we were able to extend support and information and suddenly there’s this world opening up to them that they might not ever have known about otherwise.”
Expansion and collaboration
Eckhardt’s team is currently in the fourth wave of the survey, which includes identifying entrepreneurial students, facilitating student entrepreneurship, and taking what they are learning at UW–Madison and testing it in collaboration with other institutions.
To the best of Eckhardt’s knowledge, a study with this breadth and depth has never been done before at the university level.
“Around entrepreneurship, schools may record the number of startups coming out of their institution, or the number of professors teaching entrepreneurial classes or bringing entrepreneurial experience. But we are not aware of this type of work being done at other universities in the United States.”