How to Grow a Top 50 Entrepreneurship Program

How to Grow a Top 50 Entrepreneurship Program

When Dennis Barber III joined East Carolina University’s entrepreneurship program 5 years ago, there wasn’t much of a program to speak of:

  • No entrepreneurship major
  • Low class enrollment
  • Little entrepreneurial brand recognition

Fast forward to today and ECU not only has an entrepreneurship major, they’ve:

  • Tripled their entrepreneurship enrollment
  • Won USASBE’s Model Emerging Program
  • Won GCEC’s Emerging Centers award
  • And made Princeton Review’s list of Top 50 Entrepreneurship Schools

Princeton Review Top 50 Entrepreneurship Programs

So how did Dennis and his colleagues – Michael Harris, Director of the Miller School of Entrepreneurship, David Mayo, and Corey Pulido – grow their entrepreneurship program so quickly? And more generally…

How do Top 50 entrepreneurship schools get on, and stay on, that list?

To find out, we interviewed the leaders of several Top 50 programs so we could share their techniques with you.

Who We Interviewed

Top entrepreneurship programsBelow you’ll find a summary of what we learned during our interviews, as well as…

5 concrete steps you can take to grow your entrepreneurship program.

Step #1: Define Your Niche

Most of the successful entrepreneurship programs we interviewed did two things early on to spark their growth:

  1. They intentionally started small and
  2. They specialized in an area of entrepreneurship that leveraged their local community and institutional culture

For instance, Iowa State University leaned into agricultural entrepreneurship, and East Carolina University specialized in the needs of eastern North Carolina. Studying your local ecosystem by identifying the largest industries, companies, and communities will help you define your niche. Additionally, you can look at your local Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, or similar entity, to see how they are marketing your community.

Defining your entrepreneurial niche is important because it will help your program stand out in a sea of other academic programs, not to mention accelerators, incubators and community-based organizations. Narrowing in on a small group of students you can serve extremely well as your program is still growing will increase the success rate of your program, which you can highlight as case studies to create a positive feedback loop that grows your program.

As David Townsend from Virginia Tech University said,

“Let it grow where the soil is fertile.”

So if your local community has a large Latinx population, consider specializing in Latinx entrepreneurship. Or if your entrepreneurship program has a number of instructors who are veterans, consider developing programs that specialize in veterans entrepreneurship.

Over time, you’ll be able to grow and broaden the scope of your program, but when you’re starting out, do like the most successful programs have done and ensure that you can provide a fantastic opportunity for a small set of entrepreneurs in your community. Then, highlight their successes to help fuel your program’s growth.

Note: This is our first article in a series dedicated to growing entrepreneurship programs. We’d love your input on which article we should write next.

If you want more details on this specific step (i.e. how to define your entrepreneurial program’s niche and create programs specific to it) please vote here and we’ll expand the overview above into a full article and checklist.

Step #2: Name Your Champions

The Top 50 programs we talked to overwhelming stressed the importance of identifying people on your growth team to fulfill these three roles:

  1. Administrative Champion: A Dean, Vice-President, Provost, President, etc. who has been at your school for some time and has excellent relationships with faculty, staff, and the ability to get buy-in for creating new programs.
  2. Faculty Champion: Preferably a tenured faculty member who can drive the implementation of your new academic and extracurricular programming.
  3. Data Collector: Someone to aggregate program metrics, testimonials, and success stories.

Note: the same person can fulfill multiple roles, you just need to make sure you’ve got someone owning all three levels of responsibility.

Champions are people who can help you launch your efforts by providing critical feedback, opening doors, and giving their resources. Many of the programs we interviewed mentioned specifically having two campus champions – one a tenured faculty member, and the other an administrator (Dean, Vice-President / Provost, President). With respected champions who can reach across campus, program growth has a clear path for growth. They also recommend giving the faculty champions a meaningful title and a commitment of time and support to help them help your entrepreneurship program.

Another potential benefit to identifying champions is that they sometimes rise into leadership positions at the university (Dean, Vice-President / Provost, President) and can provide ongoing support and visibility for your program from the top down.

Jamey Darnell from Penn State University mentioned that working towards getting ranked as a top entrepreneurship school is a great way to get administration excited, and achieving rankings is a great way to keep them excited.

In addition to stressing how important campus champions were to building their program, the leaders we interviewed all spoke about the importance of a data collector: someone to capture their efforts and successes and report them as part of the Princeton Review rankings process. As with your champions, consider providing this person (ideally a faculty member) with a title and a small monetary stipend to emphasize the importance of the role and ensure they have time to complete it. In addition, make sure other people on campus know who this person is – put out a press release, introduce the data collector at campus meetings and events, etc. This person will interface with faculty, students, and administrators, so letting your campus know who they are and what they’re doing enables them to collect more stories and data.

Finally, as Dr. Susan Fiorito, Dean of the Jim Moran College of Entrepreneurship at Florida State University stressed, all of your faculty, staff, and champions need to feel enabled as leaders of your entrepreneurship program. When everyone feels ownership, everyone delivers.

If you’d like us to write a more detailed article about how to identify and empower your entrepreneurial champions, please click here.

Step #3: Start a Fellows Program

Every program we talked to emphasized the importance of early cross-campus collaboration. Creating these connections will help you accomplish two things:

  1. Get buy-in from a wide range of tenured faculty which helps establish academic legitimacy.
  2. Grow your program by embedding entrepreneurship across the curriculum which introduces it to more students.

To do this, you want to build a cohort of entrepreneurial ambassadors across campus. As Tom Swartwood at Iowa State University recommended, you want to:

“Deputize people around campus.”

Jamey at Penn State University found that having a cross-disciplinary program leads directly to growth because they get to meet students wherever they are: at a law school, at an incubator, etc. For the same reason, Susan Fiorito at Florida State University recommends developing a diversity of courses and programs to reach as far across campus as possible.

The most effective mechanism we heard for building cross-campus collaboration was through an “entrepreneurship Fellows” program. In a Fellows program, you pay non-entrepreneurship faculty a small stipend to bring entrepreneurship into their curriculum. For example, you might pay 4 or 5 faculty in different disciplines a few thousand dollars to each develop a course that focuses on entrepreneurship in their respective discipline.  Judi Eyles at Iowa State attributed much of the entrepreneurship program’s success to spending a little money early on to “turn faculty into ambassadors.”

You guide the Fellows through learning about entrepreneurship in the context of your university (and your niche), and collaboratively develop ideas for how to introduce it into their curriculum. You will also want to include faculty involved with your curriculum approval process in your Fellows program, which will help smooth the course approval process when you get to that stage.

Each year, add more Fellows to your program (both senior faculty and new faculty), in new disciplines, while former Fellows serve as mentors. You can thereby build a rich and diverse community of entrepreneurship champions across campus.

The big payoff from an investment in a Fellows program comes in two forms:

  1. Cultivating entrepreneurship educators across many disciplines creates a rich fabric of entrepreneurial courses, which increases interest in entrepreneurial minors, and majors.
  2. Student entrepreneurs get a diverse range of experiences and perspectives, which increase the quality of their experiences and their outcomes as future entrepreneurs.

If you’d like us to write a detailed guide on how to create a fellows program, please click here.

Step #4: Map Your Ecosystem

Ecosystem maps will help you understand the relationships between the people and assets that contribute to creating amazing student experiences. Building an ecosystem map specifically provides two benefits:

  1. You identify the people who support entrepreneurship (so you can empower them) and those who do not support it yet (so you can interview them to understand their perspective and work to bring them onboard)
  2. During your research, you plant the seeds from which your entrepreneurship program will grow. As you map your ecosystem, you talk to faculty, staff, students, and alumni about your vision and goals for your program. When it is time to make an ask, these stakeholders understand what you’re doing and why.

The leaders we interviewed mentioned the following as critical components to include in your ecosystem map:

  • ​​The faculty and staff who collectively create your student experience.
  • The practices they perform – the services or value they deliver to students.
  • The information they require, use, or share to contribute to their parts of the university.
  • The people, systems, faculty, and staff they interact with to be successful in their roles.
  • The channels through which they communicate – e.g., email, campus newsletter, campus forums.

For a demo on how to start outlining the key players in your ecosystem, check out this great video by Meg Weber from Western Washington University:

Want more details on how to build and leverage an ecosystem map? Click here and we’ll expand this into a full guide.

Step #5: Connect Your FACS

After you’ve identified your niche, champions, Fellows, and ecosystem members, you’re ready to take the final step that separates the Top 50 entrepreneurship programs from the rest…

Connect your constituencies to accelerate growth.

Successful entrepreneurship programs are intentional about connecting their “FACS”:

  • Faculty
  • Alumni
  • Community
  • Students

Each of these groups complements the others, and together, creates the fuel for program growth. For example, you want to make sure you’re actively promoting programs connecting:

  • Faculty to Alumni – Great for finding guest speakers, internships for students, publicizing your programs’ success stories, and soliciting donations.
  • Faculty to Community – Great for getting pitch competition judges, finding inspiration for class projects, highlighting student success stories, and soliciting donations.
  • Students to Alumni – Great for mentorships, jobs, and potential investments.
  • Students to Community – Great for mentorships, jobs, and inspiring class projects.

As Judi Eyles at Iowa State University mentioned, “you need to make it easy for the outside world to connect with your students and faculty by giving them a portal to connect.” Intentionally building relationships with students will help you keep in touch with them as they transition to alums, and enable you to extend relationships with them and their growing network.

Creating relationships with alumni and community members will provide the “reality” your students yearn for as they wonder how to apply what they’re learning in the classroom. Alumni will also create opportunities for students – through job shadowing, internships, seed funding, adjunct instructors, and the list goes on.

In short…

Does your entrepreneurship program offer your alumni and community members multiple opportunities to contribute their time, expertise, and/or money to help your program grow?

If not, you may be able to accelerate your program’s growth by connecting your “FACS.”

If you’d like us to write a detailed guide with specific ideas on how to connect your FACS, please click here.

Bonus Step #6: Focus on Skills

The top 50 entrepreneurship programs we interviewed had one more resounding practice in common:

They prioritized entrepreneurial skill development over “success stories.”

The programs we spoke with acknowledged that entrepreneurial success stories are fantastic to share to grow your community, but they can be few and far between. So instead of focusing exclusively on those, the programs emphasized the value for students of learning entrepreneurial skills, regardless of their perceived career path.

Universally applicable skills like design thinking, financial modeling, and business model validation turn today’s students into returning alumni who are looking to hire similarly skilled and innovative graduates.

If you’d to review the skill-based curriculum that 1 out of every 3 programs on Princeton Review’s Top 50 list use, check out our Experiential Entrepreneurship Curriculum.

Want More Growth Tips

We’re excited to explore these subjects in more depth so please let us know what topics we should dive into next!

We hope you’re able to try these strategies and that we get to feature your program in the future!


What’s Next?

In upcoming posts, we will share lesson plans, quick slides, and a variety of other resources to keep your students engaged!

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