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With few businesses hiring, students start their own

More students are turning to entrepreneurship, often with the help of campus programs.

By Bridget HuberContributor / May 12, 2009

Chris Varenhorst (l.) and Justin Cannon started Lingt Language, an educational software company, while studying at MIT.

Bridget Huber/The Christian Science Monitor

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Boston

When Kate Harrison entered a master’s program in environmental management at Yale University, she figured she would use her previous law degree to find a clerkship or work for an environmental firm after graduation.

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Instead, as commencement nears, Ms. Harrison is working for her own Internet company that she founded while at Yale: TheGreenBrideGuide.com, a website that connects couples who want an environmentally-friendly wedding with “green” products and services.

With unemployment at a 25-year high and job prospects dim, more college students are looking to start their own businesses. Many are turning to on-campus entrepreneurship centers, which are reporting an upsurge in student interest. And while starting a business in this economic climate may be challenging, students are finding there are advantages, too.

“If you were looking for a job two years ago, when there were all sorts of great jobs and lots of hiring, you were going to go for the safe and secure thing. But now, if that opportunity isn't so safe and secure, [entrepreneurship] looks better,” says Tim Kane, an economist and senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which studies and promotes entrepreneurship.

Harrison, who started her website after turning the research she did for her own green wedding into a book, agrees. Though she knew that she eventually wanted to grow her own business, she initially looked for jobs in environmental policy. “A lot of the firms I was looking at are having hiring freezes right now. [I] put some feelers out, and thought, ‘Wow, this would be a tough market.’ ”

How campus programs help

In starting her business, Harrison isn’t quite on her own. She will take part this summer in a 10-week business boot camp run by the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI), where she'll learn about accounting, tax law, and how to find seed money.

More than 3,000 higher-education institutes have entrepreneurial programs in the form of classes, small business incubators, or mentorship services, according to the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE).

Yale started its summer camp in 2007 after watching many of its graduates move to the San Francisco Bay Area to start their businesses. “We realized we have this whole community of innovators who have been under our noses, but we haven't provided the structures to support them,” says Shana Schneider, YEI's deputy director.

These days, YEI is “inundated” with interest in its programs, says Ms. Schneider. She estimates there has been a 50 percent increase in participation over the past two years.

Such programs help forward-thinking students turn their ideas into viable enterprises, says Sherwin Greenblatt, director of the Venture Mentoring Service at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The program matches up students and graduates with alumni entrepreneurs. “Many engineers and scientists don't have any idea how to go about [commercializing their ideas],” he says.