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Inside the University of Waterloo campus in Stratford Ont. (University Waterloo Stratford)
Inside the University of Waterloo campus in Stratford Ont. (University Waterloo Stratford)

Education

Universities bring real world into entrepreneur programs Add to ...

Melissa Morgan is 19, and she has already worked as a model, voice actress, photographer and TV intern. In January, she added president and CEO to her resume.

Vowing to put theory into action, the student of the University of Waterloo’s new digital arts entrepreneurship program in Stratford, Ont., recently launched an agency that represents web designers, social media experts, photographers and tutors.

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“I was just really inspired by my courses,” Ms. Morgan says, adding she hopes her venture will not only help pay her tuition, but will create jobs for other students and contribute to the Canadian economy.

She’s among a swell of students enrolling in the next generation of entrepreneurship programs at university campuses across the country. Business planning, microfinance and marketing are still a fundamental part of the curriculum. But programs in entrepreneurship are morphing to reflect the need for a new kind of knowledge worker. To that end, they are highly experiential with a focus on commercialization. Students are often given access to mentors and funding, which involves plugging them into available resources within the broader community.

Succeeding in a global, digital economy requires multitasking innovators — workers with knowledge of everything from design, culture and linguistics, to drama, history and computer coding, explains Ginny Dybenko, executive director of the University of Waterloo’s Stratford campus, which offers both undergraduate and masters level courses in digital arts entrepreneurship.

“We start from an arts core, expose our students to enough technology to make them dangerous, and give them the business skills,” Ms. Dybenko says, explaining that in creating its programs, Waterloo took a page straight from the Steve Jobs’ playbook, marrying the precepts of design and technology into the core curriculum.

Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) in St. John’s is also rolling out a new type of entrepreneurial education. This fall, MUN launched a program in entrepreneurship designed specifically for international graduate students with an emphasis on varying disciplines, so they can take their entrepreneurial skills back to their own country.

One student doing graduate work in bioscience hopes to leave the program and patent medical technology. Another is completing a a PhD in literature, and dreams of opening a Thai restaurant.

The program is also unique in that students are completing a masters or a PhD. The local and national business communities are heavily involved – presenters come not just from the school, but also the provincial and federal governments. Participants get opportunities to get out into the community, working one-on-one with their mentors.

Charlie Oliver, a local entrepreneur, recently dropped in to the class as a guest lecturer. The owner and CEO of Martek, a commercial real estate firm in St. John’s, says there’s a big need for entrepreneurship programs.

“I believe too many entrepreneurs have been pushed into the closet by our educational system,” Mr. Oliver says, adding that courses such as accounting and engineering traditionally teach students to be risk averse. “Courses like this will help to reignite the entrepreneurial spark that has been there all along.”

Teresa Menzies, a professor at Brock University’s Goodman School of Business, has studied the evolution of entrepreneurial education in Canada over more than a decade, and she agrees there’s a new buzz about entrepreneurship on university campuses. While business faculties once owned entrepreneurial education, there’s a growing recognition that all students can benefit from courses in the discipline, she says.

But it’s going to take more than a good education for nascent entrepreneurs to succeed, Ms. Menzies adds. “It takes an ecosystem to get businesses off the ground.”

That explains the rise of technology parks, business incubators and partnerships between industry and universities, she says. And why so many universities are hosting startup competitions – such as the recent Pitch-it event at the University of Victoria. It’s all part of a new emphasis on experiential education: getting students out there, floating ideas, working on business plans and trying to connect with investors while the stakes are still relatively low.

“By focusing on the experiential part of learning we help compress 15 to 20 years of hard knocks into three to five years,” says Brock Smith, who teaches entrepreneurship and marketing at UVic’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business. “It really forces students to focus and drives up success rates when they do graduate.”

Still, Brock’s Ms. Menzies says she believes there’s a lot more to be done to nurture entrepreneurship in Canada. Universities should not only focus on youth, they should reach out to immigrants and older Canadians who also have a great capacity to create value in the Canadian economy, she says.

What does seem clear is that youth will continue to push for the expansion and evolution of entrepreneurship programs across the country, Waterloo’s Ms. Dybenko says. The death of the corporation and a moribund economy, combined with youth unemployment, are likely to ensure a steady uptick in enrollment—at least in the near term, she says.

But it’s more than that.

“In my generation, we were motivated by the realization that we had to work to eat. Our students are motivated by self-fulfillment. They want to create their own dream jobs,” Ms. Dybenko says.

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