How two colleges fuel entrepreneurs
Wellesley, Mass. — When Jonathan Wright graduated in 1974 with the first class at Hampshire College, a small, experimental school in western Massachusetts, he had a ``career plan'': Work six months of the year at construction and salt away enough money to support himself the other six months as a writer. ``Almost seven years later,'' Mr. Wright recalled recently, ``I took my first vacation.'' A thoughtful man who dresses in corduroys and leather chukkas, Wright is now president of J. A. Wright & Co., a $4 million-a-year business employing 35 people that does residential and light commercial construction and custom interiors.
David Thibodeau, on the other hand, intended to go into business all along. After graduating from Babson College, a four-year business school here in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Mr. Thibodeau went to work at a bank. One day he left the office with a yen for a peanut butter sandwich, and that unrequited lunchtime craving eventually evolved into ``Trombly's Peanut Butter Fantasies,'' in Boston's tony Quincy Market, with four new outlets to come this year.
American colleges have come under heavy fire of late for turning out too many people for whom a secure, well-paying job in a large corporation or bank is the peak of aspiration. In their different ways, Thibodeau and Wright demonstrate that recent generations of college graduates haven't become entirely pre-geriatric. Last week they joined about a dozen other graduates of their respective schools on the Babson campus, at the invitation of the schools' presidents, William Dill of Babson and Adelle Simmons of Hampshire. The idea was to find out how the two very different schools had encouraged these young graduates to set out on their own, and how they could do the job better.
Ms. Simmons stressed that the world needs more initiators in community service as well as in business.
To a growing number of schools -- 340 at last count -- encouraging enterprise means offering courses on the subject. There was wide agreement at the Babson gathering, however, that enterprise, like jazz, is something you can't teach. ``When it comes to street smarts, you either have them or you don't,'' said Jonathan Carson, a Babson grad who left McKinsey & Co. to start his own management consulting firm. It was the cultures of the two campuses -- as opposed to any particular courses -- that fostered an inclination to go it alone, the graduates said.
At Babson, that culture was established by the school's founder, Roger Babson, a pioneer financial forecaster, to whom enterprise was next to godliness. That didn't mean a cushy job with a Fortune 500 company, either. ``The trouble with most of you today,'' Mr. Babson told a group of students late in his life, ``is that you are not willing to start at the bottom and create a business.''
Most, perhaps, but not all. The current handbook of the Babson student chamber of commerce lists 21 student enterprises, from Rent-A-Fridge, which rents refrigerators to students, to Nuts to You, which peddles candies and nuts from a pushcart. Skip Kates, the student chamber vice-president, who represented undergrads at the meeting, has no fewer than three businesses to his credit. Each year on Founder's Day, students meet with prominent businessmen who are inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs; recent recipients have ranged from Donald Burr of People Express to Wally Amos of Famous Amos cookies. A tradition of encouraging students
``Teachers [at Babson] give you respect if you are running a business,'' said Jeffrey Mulligan, who started a disc jockey service for parties which now has two complete sound systems and a large-screen video. ``At other places they think you are ripping people off if you are making money.''
Hampshire, by contrast, doesn't promote an interest in business. But it does seem to encourage the kind of consuming interests that can develop into businesses.
Take Gary Hirshberg, who studied philosophy, religion, and the environment and who spent a number of years promoting energy conservation and local food production. Eventually, he ``got tired of running workshops and wordsmithing'' and decided to develop a product that would bring his environmental message ``right to the people.''
The result was Stonyfield Farms yogurt, a creamy concoction that he now markets throughout New England, with more than $1 million in annual sales.
Another example is Roger Sherman, a swarthy fellow who sports leather boots and a longish mane of hair. Sherman enrolled in Hampshire with the idea of becoming an artist. When he graduated, he set up a production company called Florentine Films, which has produced two Academy Award nominees. ``I became a businessman because I wanted to make films,'' he says. `Selling' a course of study
While Hampshire isn't exactly crawling with Adam Smith study groups, something about the place does prime students to start something on their own. The way students plan their own course of study and negotiate it with faculty is not unlike the process of developing a business plan and selling it to bankers, the graduates observed. Jonathan Wright says he has learned his business much the way he learned in college, by ``hiring his teachers'' -- an experienced financial man, for example, to initiate him into the mysteries of finance.
Then too, the Hampshire program cuts across traditional subject areas. ``I learned not to be afraid to take on new disciplines,'' said Mr. Hirshberg, pointing out that in the yogurt business he has to be ``totally interdisciplinary,'' concerned with the bacteriological climate in the yogurt cultures one minute and the rate of return on the stainless steel tanks the next. ``I'm not going to be a specialist, ever -- thank goodness,'' he says. Room for improvement
But Wright noted a downside to Hampshire's stress on individual endeavors. It ``doesn't really build leadership,'' he said. ``After the `I can' and the `I will,' there has to be the `what we can do.' ''
There were other suggestions. Mr. Carson said that business schools should do more to prepare students for failure, since 8 of 10 new businesses end up that way. Betsy Henley Cohn, who built up her family's industrial painting business from 20 employees to 180, said that women will be the best entrepreneurs of this age, because they are the ``hungriest.'' But their problems need more attention. ``That you may go on to be a wife and mother is treated as a non-issue,'' she said, ``but it's the single biggest problem you face.''
One subject that hardly came up is money. Partly, no doubt, that was because money is a given. But there was evidence that money is not the only motivation for this new generation of entrepreneurs. Sure, you'd expect a Gary Hirschberg to say that he's building a yogurt business to ``turn on thousands of people to a nutritional alternative.'' But Carson, the management consultant, expressed a similar view. ``It's not money that gets me up in the morning,'' he said.