American entrepreneurs are a mixed bag when it comes to education. Census data from 2019 show that while most entrepreneurs have a bachelor’s degree — and a smaller number had a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree — there are millions of others who created their business after earning an associate’s degree, technical certificate or GED, or not completing high school.
Since 1985, the number of entrepreneurship courses offered at college campuses across the nation has risen 20-fold. Philadelphia’s major universities do have official entrepreneurship curricula in the form of degrees, minors or certificate programs. Temple University offers a master’s in innovation management and entrepreneurship in its Fox School of Business, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School offers an entrepreneurship and innovation major within its MBA program, and Drexel University offers an entrepreneurship and innovation undergraduate degree within a college dedicated to entrepreneurship — the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship.
In 2023 and beyond, how important is an entrepreneurship degree or official academic training for startup founders? We asked Philly execs for their thoughts: Did they study official business curricula? If not, do they wish they had?
Learning from peers
Chris Cera, founder of software company Arcweb, received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer science from Drexel in the early 2000s. Though he wasn’t studying entrepreneurship, the university’s Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship was well known on campus as a place for extracurriculars and events, he said. It served as a source of information, connection and inspiration, and led him to meeting mentor Mel Baiada, who he’s still in touch with today.
The hardest thing for Cera in getting his businesses off the ground wasn’t the lack of formal education in business, but getting the confidence to make moves.
“Taking the plunge requires a ton of confidence,” he said, “so the great thing about being at the Baiada Center was you saw people who were actually taking the plunge and could talk about it.”
Cera said he thinks the establishment of more entrepreneurship-focused degrees and curricula is a good thing for people who know they want to start their own businesses. But he doesn’t regret the course he took, or feel like he lacked without official academic training.
Varied industries, with educational backgrounds to match
That was a sentiment shared by several of Technical.ly’s 2023 RealLIST Startups founders, who gathered earlier this month to talk about the future of tech, and the best and worst parts about building a company in Philly. The startups on this year’s list span industries including healthcare, enterprise tech and gaming — and their educational backgrounds varied just as much.
BOSS.Tech founders Felicite Moorman and Ryan Buchert, who have started multiple companies together, bring quite a mix of studies to their work. Buchert, the technical lead on their projects, graduated with an engineering degree, while Moorman crafted an “interdisciplinary studies” major that hit on women’s studies, philosophy, biology and psychology.
She’s also a “recovering attorney,” like BLOK founder Tony Frick. Though Frick spent a few years in law, his undergraduate degree was from Brown University in economics. He also took some entrepreneurship classes, which were housed within the engineering department and focused on inventing-based skills.
Healthcare-at-home company Sena Health’s founder, Anthony Wehbe, and Amy Felix, founder of TrackCE, a mobile app to allow doctors and nurses to keep their education and certification credentials in one place, both come from traditional healthcare schooling. Wehbe was a longtime physician and Felix earned a nursing degree.
Learning by doing
For Jessie Garcia, founder of concussion-monitoring device company Tozuda, her mix of a bachelor’s in global studies and minors in women’s studies and entrepreneurship from Lehigh University struck the right chord to help her grow a business. She also obtained a master’s in engineering and technical entrepreneurship from the university — “half product design, half business,” she said.
Garcia originally thought she was headed for med school, but found that global studies was a fascinating combo of thinking about human challenges through a lens of psychology, sociology, political science. And she’s long been passionate about women’s issues, but her gender studies program frustrated her.
“I felt like I didn’t have the equipment to solve them, or think about what happens next,” Garcia said of the problems presented in her courses. “Like, OK, we could expose something at this level, but what do we do about it?”
Learning about entrepreneurship came at the time she experienced her life-changing concussion during a rugby game, which prompted her to begin researching and designing what is now Tozuda’s head impact indicator. Though she found her academic programs helpful in her startup journey, she doesn’t think it’s a necessity for anyone.
“I do believe in constant education. Even after going to grad school, I’ve done accelerator programs, I went to community college to take a 3D modeling class,” Garcia said. “I don’t think you need to do that at a university because there’s so many different support systems in different cities. In Philadelphia, in particular, there’s great places to learn outside the classroom, and sometimes the best lesson learning is just by doing.”
Did you major in entrepreneurship studies, or something similar? Have a take? Email email@example.com to share your experience.
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