TUCKED away behind a surf shop in a sparsely furnished one-room office in the ritzy San Diego suburb of La Jolla, Sue Boyer shows off her software company Digigami Inc., which she and business partner Gen Kiyooka, launched about a year ago.
The plucky young executive, with just four years of marketing and public relations experience at software companies, exudes confidence. ''I've always had the entrepreneurial spirit,'' she says.
Ms. Boyer says she picked up her entrepreneurial prowess from her parents, who ran a real estate agency. Seeing them take business risks, and work their way through challenges, she says, was crucial to building her own courage.
By this summer, the 10-employee firm plans to hire another three people and will launch its first product, called Weblisher, to help consumers publish information on the Internet.
Boyer says the idea for Digiami had been percolating as early as 1992, but she and Mr. Kiyooka had to build up finances. To get some business prowess, she headed to San Diego State University where she is studying at night to get her masters degree in business administration. Much of what she has been taught, Boyer says, has been too theoretical to match up in value against her work experience. But one course that has been useful, she says, is offered by the school's Entrepreneurial Management Center (EMC).
The course was based around students themselves developing business plans, then dividing into small teams to fine-tune the plans that seemed most promising.
The class ''forced me to do more market research and to develop a board of advisers, things I might have skipped,'' she says.
The class provided one pay back: Her team is one of 12 finalists in a business-plan contest this weekend sponsored by the EMC. First prize: $5,000.
The six-year-old competition is open to any business student in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Contestants will run the gauntlet of making 40-minute presentations before judges today. Tomorrow, with the field winnowed to four teams, a panel of prominent local entrepreneurs will make the final decisions.
While 10 of the finalists come from other schools, such as the universities of Texas, Oregon, and Georgia, two emerged from the EMC's entrepreneurial management class taught by Alex De Noble, a co-director of the center.
''I cannot teach desire, drive, energy, or commitment,'' Professor De Noble says. But his class can provide some tools, he says. He tries to tailor it to people who want to start a business, such as Boyer, and those who are just curious about entrepreneurship.
Jack Hanzlik was in the latter category when he entered De Noble's class a few months ago. The former Navy pilot says he knew he wanted to do something creative, and was inspired to take the class after attending last year's business-plan contest. Mr. Hanzlik, who is officially studying biomechanics, and the other two members of his team -- an MBA student and an engineer -- will also be competing in this weekend's contest.
The three have already had a taste of the unpredictability involved in starting up firms. During the last three weeks of the course, their team shifted the focus of their business plan from a line of adult clothing to ''Playons,'' a name they have trademarked for crayons that come in fun shapes (such as popular cartoon characters).
Despite the switch, the team recently won an international business-plan competition at the University of Nebraska.
They are also holding discussions with manufacturers and media companies and are out ''dialing for dollars'' to get their idea off the ground.
Unfortunately, Hanzlik says, after the Nebraska award ''nobody approached us from the crowd and said, 'Here's a check. Let's start.' ''
''I'm very impressed with the quality of the students that participate in the [EMC] program,'' says Steven Untiedt, a San Diego business attorney. He was a judge in last year's contest and has been a guest teacher for De Noble's class.
As many business schools try to strengthen their entrepreneurial programs, they are delving into a complex, formula-defying topic.
''Entrepreneurs come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds,'' De Noble says, making it hard to codify a curriculum for them or about them. Yet start-up firms and agile small companies are the future of business, he says.
''Take a look at the economics around you,'' De Noble admonishes. ''You see downsizing'' and diminishing career opportunities at big firms.