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Horn Entrepreneurship’s first 10 years: Why the UD program centers the student, not (just) the founder

University of Delaware's entrepreneurship program hits a decade this fall. It's always been about more than starting new companies, its staff and current and former students say.

One of Horn's many pitch competitions.

(Courtesy photo)

In the early 2010s, entrepreneurship classes and majors were showing up on college campuses across the country, as young people watched the startups of the 2000s become some of the biggest companies on the planet.

Some, like Facebook, came with romanticized stories of dropping out to run the next big thing. Maybe college wasn’t necessary to be an entrepreneur, but starting a business takes a tremendous amount of drive and creativity beyond a traditional business mindset. And if your college taught that, it was a college that was keeping up with the 21st century.

At the time, a lot of the “best” entrepreneur programs were known for being cutthroat and ultra-competitive, training students for public humiliation and high drama. Some of that is inevitable, with pitch competitions being a core facet of entrepreneurship education.

But one local program, Horn Entrepreneurship, put forth a vision for a program that put the development of the students — both college and secondary — above the race to find the next big thing.

In 2012, Horn was first launched at the University of Delaware, where it would become part of the origin story for companies including Carvertise, NERDiT Now, TheraV, TRIC Robotics and First Founders.

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Here’s how it happened.

Entrepreneurship for all

Named after UD alumni and philanthropists Charlie and Patty Horn, who committed $3 million to establish the interdisciplinary program in 2012, Horn Entrepreneurship started that fall semester under founding director Dan Freeman, associate professor of marketing at the UD’s Lerner College of Business and Economics, who has been with the university since 2000.

"We started Horn as a program for everyone."
Dan Freeman, director

“It really was an alignment of vision around the power of entrepreneurship and education to transform students’ lives that was shared by Charlie Horn and myself,” Freeman told Technical.ly. “He started talking about the potential for entrepreneurship education to help [students] realize their full potential, the mindset, the skill set and the means to be creative problem solvers. That was the genesis, and recognizing that the world was changing and continues to change very rapidly, and that mindset will continue to be extremely increasingly valuable as the pace of change continues to accelerate.”

Initially, the university wanted Horn to be a program under the Lerner umbrella. Although it was physically located on Lerner’s campus in Newark at first, Freeman resisted limiting the program to business students.

“We started Horn as a program for everyone,” Freeman said. “One of the earliest strategic decisions that was made was around the logo for Horn. The university wanted us to be the University of Delaware Lerner College of Business and Economics Horn Program. And we said no. We were administered through Lerner, but we were for all [UD] students.”

At the time, this wasn’t common for entrepreneurship programs, many of which required students to be business majors to take entrepreneurship classes.

In addition to offering its own degree programs, Horn allowed students in any major at any of UD’s colleges can earn a certificate from Horn, join programs like Delaware Innovation Fellows or the Siegfried Entrepreneurial Leadership Fellows or participate in events like Hen Hatch, Summer Founders and Free Lunch Fridays.

Zach Jones, a longtime member of Delaware’s entrepreneurship ecosystem and author of “The World Changer’s Handbook,” took the entrepreneurship degree route.

“I became an entrepreneurship major as soon as I heard about the program a few days after I stepped foot on campus in the fall of 2013,” said Jones, who was president of the UD Entrepreneurship Club for two years, organizing workshops, speaker events and trips for club members.

Horn had such impact on Jones that he cofounded the local entrepreneurship education nonprofit Dual School, which he continues working with now as a strategic advisor from his home in New Hampshire.

"Horn is way more open and encouraging of the entrepreneurial mindset applied to things outside of traditional entrepreneurship."
April Singleton, UD graduate

“Utilizing a lot of skills from Horn, we brought tools like design thinking and lean startup to high school students throughout Delaware,” he said. “Many of those students are now in college, and a handful of them are now involved with the Horn program.”

Design thinking, a problem-solving method that prioritizes people, creativity and empathy, is one thing that sets entrepreneurship apart from the traditional business mindset, recent UD graduate and former VentureOn program leader April Singleton said.

With a curriculum that had a focus on turning ideas into action through developing a startup, Horn offered personal development beyond what she expected.

“When I started to take more design thinking classes, it broadened my perspective of entrepreneurship,” Singleton said. “Taking social entrepreneurship classes made it less ‘stuffy.’ It made it more human to me, made it more equitable and accessible to someone like me who isn’t super interested in just the tech stuff. I love tech, but I don’t think I’ll ever have a startup that isn’t socially focused. People, when they hear entrepreneurship, they think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, unicorn companies and finance gurus. But [at Horn] it’s way more open and encouraging of the entrepreneurial mindset applied to things outside of traditional entrepreneurship.”

Learning by biz building

In 2019, Entrepreneur magazine and the Princeton Review named Horn Entrepreneurship as one of the best undergrad programs in the nation for up-and-coming entrepreneurs. The #38 ranking puts Horn in the top 13% of undergrad entrepreneurship programs in the country, and among the top programs in the region.

While plenty of successful companies and organizations have come out of Horn, only around 10% of students go on to be startup founders right after graduation — and that, Freeman said, does not counter the Horn vision.

"Students appreciate it when what they’ve learned has both immediate and lasting value and helps frame their perspective in different and meaningful ways."
Mona Parikh, professor

“One of the things that I think is important for people to understand is that we want people to engage in startup activity, not because we think that they’re going to generate successful startups, but because working on a startup is the best and fastest way to accelerate your learning,” Freeman said, referring to students building their own companies. “It shows you what you don’t know. It gives you experience with all the things that you’ve learned. It helps you to recognize what you’re actually interested in, helps you to learn what you suck at and where you need some help. And it also connects you to the outside world. Because the method we teach is to go talk to people about the problems that you think that they have, that you’re trying to solve for them.”

Mona Parikh, director of business development and marketing for Delaware Innovation Space, has been a UD adjunct professor with Horn for the past nine years. In her view, teaching students how to think through business challenges overall has as much value as solving the problem directly in front of them.

“Students appreciate it when what they’ve learned has both immediate and lasting value and helps frame their perspective in different and meaningful ways,” Parikh said. “The practical application of what we do in class goes far beyond the classroom itself — and that’s what makes teaching entrepreneurship at Horn so immensely rewarding. We aim to give students the tools they need to learn how to harness creativity, recognize opportunities, ideate, iterate, and sustainably scale and grow concepts. These skills will help them for the rest of their lives, regardless of their career path.”

Hunter Wills is one of Horn’s newest students, having transferred to UD in the spring of 2022. He said Horn made him feel like he belonged at the school, and that he quickly appreciated the out-of-classroom learning.

“I couldn’t believe how personalized each class was and how much I got out of the program, especially outside of classes,” Wills said. “Some of the most impactful parts of Horn happen outside the classroom with the [Venture Development Center] community sessions and VentureOn. My attitude toward everyday life is so much different. I see everything as a learning opportunity and my perspective on how to address problems and situations is impacted in a positive way.”

Serving youth through entrepreneurship

Transforming trajectories for pre-college students is one part of Horn’s work that Freeman is most excited about. Horn youth programs range from the Diamond Challenge — which happens to be the largest annual international youth pitch competition — to dual enrollment and a program that is bringing Horn’s secondary education to classrooms in about 35 schools, most in Delaware, but also spread out from Massachusetts to Florida.

“We see the deficits coming out of secondary education, the lack of creative competence” — that is, students being taught to standardized tests, Freeman said. “We really want to help unlock the creative potential of high school students and show them that they, too, can transform their worlds, that they’re not passive recipients of education, but they can actually be active participants in shaping their own educational process.”

For Sierra RyanWallick — a current undergraduate who started her first nonprofit at just 10 years old — Horn was the reason she chose UD. The former homeschooler participated in the Diamond Challenge, wwhere she met members of the Horn team. She ultimately won third place in the pitch competition’s Social Innovation track.

RyanWallick is now one of Horn’s most active founders, running her nonprofit recycled goods startup UP Cycle Design from home with a small remote team while working her way towards a degree in entrepreneurship.

“I’ve done the Delaware Innovation Fellows program, Entrepreneurship Club, Free Lunch Fridays,” RyanWallick said of her Horn experience over the past three years. She also visited Germany on a study abroad for a social entrepreneurship class in Germany right before the pandemic hit. “I’ve done almost every single program and they were all incredible in their own way.”

Building value beyond founding startups

For Freeman, programs like those RyanWallick joined symbolize Horn’s value beyond just launching their own ventures right after graduation.

“Because of those experiences,” the director said, “and because of all the hands-on learning that they do through our programs, students are better positioned and more valuable as employees — certainly highly sought after. But many of them will return to [entrepreneurship] at some point in the future, as they recognize opportunity. And a lot of them will be very intrapreneurial. So they’ll be the change makers, the folks who develop new lines of business within existing organizations, as well.”

With the official 10-year anniversary around the corner, look out for some big announcements from the Horn team, as well as some yet-unannounced events and a series highlighting different Horn grads on UD’s website.

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