Blake Robertson started his first company in high school but quickly realized he did not have the skills to run a business. "I was filling out forms to apply for a business license and asking people in the filing office for business advice," he says.
When Mr. Robertson learned that the University of Maryland offered the option of combining an undergraduate degree program with a residential entrepreneurship program, he knew it was the right fit.
"I needed the resources to take my inventions to the next level," he says. "This program provided that."
The Hinman Campus Entrepreneurship Opportunities (CEO) program at the University of Maryland, launched in 2000 as the first residential entrepreneurship program in the country, attracts students from majors as varied as business, engineering, and psychology.
Some of these students are already running successful businesses. Others haven't yet jumped into the real-life business world but are drawn to the idea of supplementing their classroom education with the informal business expertise they can pick up in the program residence.
These students live together in special dorms designed to encourage entrepreneurial thinking. Not only can their dorm rooms double as offices, but between classes students network, toss around suggestions for start-up funds, and attend seminars on creativity.
For Robertson the program has meant a chance to spend the last three years working with a University of Maryland professor developing some of the ideas he eventually hopes to market: prototypes for a GPS tracking system, variable-speed brake lights, and a security monitor for day-care centers.
At the same time, he's been able to learn the fundamentals of business even while pursuing a major in computer engineering.
"[The program] has encouraged me to appreciate the business side of things," he says. "I am learning that entrepreneurship is not all about inventing."
"The program provides students with experiential learning 24 hours a day," says Karen Thornton, program director of Hinman CEOs.
"[Our students] want to start businesses, and we give them the resources and education to ensure that they are making the right steps."
A number of schools offer classes in venture capital and business ethics, but only a handful offer residential entrepreneurship programs that allow students to be immersed in entrepreneurial thinking even in their dormitories.
"We are providing a living and learning space where there are activities outside the classroom that complement activities inside the classroom," says Justin Craig, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and faculty member in residence at Weatherford Hall, a residential entrepreneurship program at Oregon State University that opened its doors this fall.
The Weatherford dorms offer a wealth of business equipment ranging from computers, fax machines, and copiers to conference rooms.
In addition, the Weatherford program tries to offer students access to successful entrepreneurs who can share firsthand experiences.
The dorm has two guest suites for entrepreneurs who will give lectures, meet with students, and provide informal mentoring and then spend the night on campus.
This fall, the program has scheduled overnight visits from more than two dozen executives, ranging from the founder of classmates.com to the president of a local consulting firm.
"[The informal curriculum] gives students the opportunity to learn without the pressure of getting an A," says Mr. Craig.
Currently 289 students are enrolled in Weatherford and 89 are in the Hinman CEO program. Though students do not pay additional tuition to enroll in either program (both were funded by donations), they must apply to be accepted in the program.
For Shawn Cole, a freshman business major at Oregon State University, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
"Even when you come back to your room after class, you are still in a learning environment," Cole says. "Outside the formal curriculum there are a lot of opportunities to talk about your ideas and network with other people; things that you wouldn't necessarily be talking about in other environments."
Carl Hickerson agrees. "I have always wanted to be able to work for myself," says the freshman business major. "I wanted to be around business-minded people and to have the chance to be approached with business opportunities."
Just six weeks into his freshman year, Hickerson has launched a business selling deregulated utility services as a result of connections he made at Weatherford.
Not all academics are fans of such programs. Some worry that student-entrepreneurs who get too involved in their businesses are less likely to finish college.
Others characterize the programs as narrow, and say they don't afford enough time and space for the exploration of other disciplines.
When the Hinman CEOs program was first launched, there were concerns about students staying in school, Thornton admits.
"We were worried because we were helping students start companies that were turning into successful businesses," Thornton says. "We did not want them dropping out of school."
But both Thornton and Craig say they believe the opposite is true. "We have had students pull back or take a break from their businesses to focus on school," Craig adds. "A lot of our students are in learning mode so they can get the tools to focus on business later on."
Supporters of such programs see them as an ideal opportunity to combine a business education with other requirements.
"Critics may argue that the programs are too narrowly focused," says Scott Dawson, dean of the School of Business Administration at Portland State University. "But these students still have to fulfill their degree requirements and that means they will be taking courses with liberal arts majors as well as business majors.
"Being part of these programs is a choice, just like joining a fraternity or a sorority," he adds.
Meanwhile, Robertson is preparing for the next stage of his career: taking an invention to market.
Working with Jason Volk, a business major in the Hinman CEOs program, he created Alertus Technologies, a next-generation emergency warning system.
"We met through Hinman. Jason had the idea but was having trouble getting it implemented, so we decided to work together," Robertson says.
Later this month Volk and Robertson are traveling to Washington, D.C., to present their invention to the federal government.
"This could provide the funding to bring the product to the market," says Robertson. "This type of real-world experience that we are getting through Hinman is priceless."