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ENTREPRENEURSHIP@ Columbia Business School: CBS Reframes Its Entrepreneurship Curriculum

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As part of a week-long celebration of entrepreneurship earlier this month, Columbia Business School (CBS) unveiled a new framework for its entrepreneurship curriculum—one that is designed to help students quickly and easily understand available coursework as it relates to their individual entrepreneurial interests.

“We wanted to put in place a framework that helps students find the right classes to empower them based on whatever their goal might be,” says Vincent Ponzo, senior director of the Eugene Lang Center for Entrepreneurship. Recognizing that goals vary from student to student, the school has grouped its entrepreneurial coursework into four broad buckets titled Think, Start, Scale and Invest and created an intuitive digital tool that allows for easy filtering and class selection.


The expectation is that coursework in the Think bucket will have universal appeal. “In our opinion, it should be every business school student who wants to think entrepreneurially,” Ponzo says. “And so we’ve pulled together a set of courses that we believe will help you do that.” Indeed, these courses are designed for any and all students looking to adopt an entrepreneurial way of thinking and solving problems and even include some of CBS’s core classes, such as “Strategy” and “Negotiation.”

A second subset of courses are for those students who come to CBS set on starting their own businesses, which represents only a small portion of the CBS class, Ponzo says. Falling within the Start category, these courses provide a curriculum for students who hope to start their own businesses during or immediately after business school and serve as founder, CEO or in another top leadership role.

A third category, Scale, includes courses geared toward students who want to take existing businesses to the next stage—either their own business, a business founded by someone else, or perhaps a family business. “The Scale piece is for those who maybe don’t want to go to a Goldman Sachs or start their own business when they graduate—but maybe they want to be number five or number 50 at a startup,” Ponzo says.

The fourth and final category, Invest, is a curriculum designed for students who want to learn what it takes to invest in entrepreneurial companies. “These are the courses for those who come to Columbia Business School wanting to be venture capitalists or who are maybe in a position to be angel investors,” Ponzo says.

Vincent Ponzo, senior director, Eugene Lang Center for Entrepreneurship

At Columbia, entrepreneurship is not its own discipline like at some other business schools, so while lots of entrepreneurially focused course content exists, the courses fall within more traditional disciplines like marketing, management, finance or accounting. The new Think/Start/Scale/Invest framework is designed not only to help current students more easily find entrepreneurial courses, but also to be more readily visible to prospective applicants, sending the message that CBS is a place where they can come to think entrepreneurially, says Ponzo.

Joint Effort Leads to Framework’s Creation
Creating the framework was a joint effort, says Ponzo, a 2003 CBS MBA graduate, who apart from a short stint at Citigroup had been either running his own business or working at startups in New York City until returning to lead the Lang Center three years ago. “I came in with the mindset that we needed to organize the curriculum and pitched the idea to the dean, who was fully supportive,” he says. The vice dean of academic affairs was also a champion of the process, and the last piece of the puzzle was Professor Olivier Toubia, new faculty director for the Lang Center. “He really just helped usher this in—including building the tool that helps filter the classes,” Ponzo says.

The process of creating the new framework also allowed Ponzo and his team to conduct an inventory and discovery process of existing entrepreneurship coursework. “The framework let us really look at what exists, fill in some holes, recognize some things that needed to be updated or removed,” Ponzo says.

So while the Think/Start/Scale/Invest framework is largely a reorganization of existing courses, it also includes several new additions and paves the way for future additions in time. Examples of classes that have been added recently include a “Digital Literacy for Decision Makers” course geared toward helping future business leaders be able to understand and speak in the same language as engineers. Another unique addition has been a “Research to Revenue” course, part of a trend within the business school toward trying to create opportunities for CBS students to work with students from other Columbia University schools. Offered jointly with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, “Research to Revenue” draws students from both schools and helps them understand what’s involved in taking an idea from the lab, proving its viability and going to market.

Each bucket within the entrepreneurship curriculum framework is geared toward a different subset of students, although the expectation is that some students will sample courses from more than one. “We have some students who come in thinking they want to start a business only to change their minds—others come in interested in entrepreneurship but just don’t have the right idea, so they end up going down the scale path,” Ponzo says. “There is a lot of fluidity, but we make sure that fluidity is not pure vacillation between buckets. If they are moving, it is because they have learned something about themselves.”

Primary Mission Is to Reveal the Rigors of Entrepreneurship Early
Indeed, a goal of the new entrepreneurial curriculum framework is to help accelerate this introspection and reveal clearly just how difficult entrepreneurship can be. “We are focused on exposing students to the rigors of entrepreneurship as early as possible,” Ponzo says. “I have failed at doing my job and, as an institution, we have failed at doing our job if someone comes out of here not realizing how difficult and how challenging being an entrepreneur is.”

By helping students understand just what they’re getting into by heading down an entrepreneurial path, CBS hopes—among other things—to give some students an out. The Lang Scholars Program—a semester-long independent study offered in both the spring and the fall—pairs students with venture teams selected to participate into top New York City accelerator programs, including Techstars, Entrepreneurs Roundtable Acclerator (ERA) and Dreamit. This semester, 17 CBS students are paired with the 17 teams currently in the Dreamit accelerator, and in the spring, another set of students will be paired with venture teams in ERA.

“As part of the Lang Scholars Program, students are exposed to the realities of what it is like working at a startup—the pivots, the chaos, the ups the downs, the all hands on deck, the not knowing if you will survive,” says Ponzo. “More than half come out saying, ‘I don’t want to work at a startup,’ and that is the exact goal of the program,” he continues. “We want to make sure that students learn that while they are here so they can go back to McKinsey or another job in a more structured environment.”

But for the other half of students, participation in the program serves to reaffirm their desire to pursue entrepreneurship while also aiding them in that process. In some instances, students receive full-time offers to work at the startup where they interned. For others, it serves as a valuable experience to add to their CV. “Lang Scholars also have been able to take advantage of the the education and programming the participating accelerators have in place and come away with a powerful network they can tap into,” Ponzo says.

MBA Students Working at Startups Help Chip Away at MBA Stereotype
An added benefit of the Lang Scholars Program is that it also serves to expose startups to business school students. “It gets MBAs in there, and that can chip away at the MBA stereotype,” Ponzo says. By that he’s referring to the image some startups—and especially tech startups—have of MBAs as bringing less value than other hires. Contributing to this are Silicon Valley venture capitalist Guy Kawalski’s quip, “For every full-time engineer, add $500,000 [in company value]. For every full-time MBA, subtract $250,000.” Sheryl Sandberg, despite holding a Harvard Business School MBA herself, also famously wrote that MBAs aren’t necessary at Facebook and aren’t important in tech. “I wouldn’t say it’s a huge stumbling block,” Ponzo says of the stereotype, “but I don’t want tech co-founders taking their cues from what they can expect from MBAs from second-hand quotes.” Getting CBS students in front of these founders—and in the trenches working next to them—goes a long way toward dispelling these notions.

In addition to unveiling the new entrepreneurship curriculum framework—just in time for students to bid on second-semester classes—CBS’s Startup Week also included a fireside chat with Phin Barnes, partner at First Round Capital, and a Startup Food Fair featuring a host of CBS alumni and current students working on food-oriented ventures.

A final highlight of the week, says Ponzo, was a Startup Networking Night. An annual gathering held each fall, the networking event drew together 40 or so New York City startups that have all raised money and are growing and will likely soon need to hire. “It filled to capacity within the first hour or two,” Ponzo says, offering great opportunities for business school students to network with startup founders and vice versa. “Here again, this kind of interaction helps chip away at any stereotypes around MBAs and gets these startups thinking about MBAs as an important talent pool.”

To learn more about entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School, click here.