Chris Sinkinson was already a successful entrepreneur in his late 20s when he went back to school for a full-time MBA.
"I was very strong in the technical skills, but I was very weak on how to run a business and how to manage staff," says Mr. Sinkinson, a Queen's University computer science undergraduate who returned to his alma mater in 2010 for a 12-month master of business administration. Since graduating last year, he has set up three new ventures in addition to his still-thriving business in electronic document management.
In looking to business school to hone his new-venture skills, Mr. Sinkinson is part of a global trend.
In a recent survey, the Graduate Management Admissions Council reports that of 226,000 graduate management admissions test exams taken last year in which the candidate specified a subject specialty concentration, 12,000 named entrepreneurship as a preference. In a separate survey of prospective MBA students worldwide, GMAC found that 20 per cent of Canadian respondents viewed entrepreneurship as a postdegree career goal, compared with 35 per cent from Central Asia.
Globally, business schools have responded to the demand by establishing specialty centres for entrepreneurship and innovation, such as those at Queen's School of Business in Kingston, the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
In addition, schools are rethinking the curriculum to embed innovation and entrepreneurship in the MBA.
At Sauder, a redesigned MBA introduced this year includes business innovation as one of four "career tracks" in the year-long program. The school previously offered electives in innovation and entrepreneurship, but now aims to offer a more intensive experience for budding entrepreneurs, and also for so-called intrapreneurs to pursue new business development within an existing company.
Sauder students do not sign up for the career tracks until January, but informal interest in the business innovation option is running high from about one-quarter of the class of 100 students, says Murali Chandrashekaran, associate dean of professional graduate programs.
"We want entrepreneurial thinking to become the way in which decision-makers in organizations think, so you might be working for a start-up or a firm that was a start-up five years ago and is looking to grow globally," Dr. Chandrashekaran says.
Whether students pursue their own venture or work for a multinational company, he says, they will need to develop a capacity for outside-the-box thinking. "You want to bring the entrepreneurial thinking and ethos and the commitment to innovation to these jobs, as well," he says.
Sauder and other schools incorporate the experience of starting a business into the classroom.
Former minor professional hockey player Dustin Sproat arrived at Sauder in 2011 – one year before the revamped MBA – and is taking several entrepreneurship-oriented courses to help him get his new venture off the ground.
With others, he recently introduced Shnarped.com as a social media app that allows hockey fans to connect with their favourite players (and track their statistics) even when they are traded to another team. This semester, he is working on a course that requires him to devise a marketing campaign for a local company – namely his own. "It could not be more perfectly timed," he says of the assignment.
Mr. Sproat says his MBA is teaching him skills he might have acquired through trial and error on his own. "I don't know what my chances of success are, but they are drastically higher because of the MBA program," he says, citing informal contacts with students, professors and Vancouver's high-tech community as crucial components of the MBA experience.
Meanwhile, Queen's is in the midst of redesigning its MBA to enlarge the focus on entrepreneurship and innovation. Previously, the school offered a course on new-venture management as part of the core curriculum, along with several electives and a student-run venture capital fund. As part of the new MBA for May of 2013, the school expects to offer about 10 innovation-oriented electives, up from six at present.
Still, some wonder if growing interest in entrepreneurship is a passing fad – fuelled by a tough job market – or if it represents a real change in thinking?
"There is a sea change, at least in the foreseeable future," predicts Shai Dubey, director of the Queen's full-time MBA program. "I see the attitudes of the kids changing: They all understand that being an entrepreneur means a lot of work, but they see the satisfaction of building something."
As well, he adds, many of them are tech-savvy and able to spot new opportunities. But he cites another factor – Canada's immigration policy – as encouraging overseas entrepreneurs to start a business here.
Despite the rising profile of entrepreneurship at business schools, enthusiasts such as Mr. Sinkinson wonder whether working for oneself suffers from a public perception as a second-best option for employment.
"Entrepreneurship is not a Plan B, it is a Plan A," he declares.