Eva Shang is studying economics at Harvard College, which she dubs the default concentration for many students who might otherwise study business if the school offered an undergraduate business program. “Most people who would want to be a business major end up getting shoved into the economics major,” says Shang, a junior at Harvard. “But most of the faculty are more interested in the academic theory of economics than teaching modern business concepts.”
That’s why she took notice when an email arrived in her in-box inviting her to apply to a week-long entrepreneurship boot camp called Building Your Entrepreneurial Toolkit. The program for Harvard undergraduates would be run by Xfund, a Harvard-affiliated seed-stage venture capital firm, with a mission to fund technically-savvy student entrepreneurs with a liberal arts mindset.
Even more appealing, Harvard MBA students and Harvard business faculty would teach students the basic tenets of entrepreneurship via case studies, guest speakers and hands-on exercises. Shang, who wants to eventually marry her passion for social justice with the startup world, couldn’t resist submitting an application to the program.
“It presented an opportunity to do something outside of the traditional paths available to undergraduates,” believes Shang, who serves as president of Harvard’s Student Alliance for Prison Reform. “If you start your own business, you get to chart your own path, and that really appealed to me.”
A GROWING APPETITE AMONG HARVARD UNDERGRADS FOR THE STARTUP LIFE
Shang is one of 30 Harvard undergraduates (fifty in total applied for a spot) who was selected to participate, which took place on the Harvard campus in mid-January. The boot camp, a pilot program, is building on a series of efforts Harvard University has undertaken taken in the last five years or so to foster a stronger entrepreneurship community on campus. Initiatives like The Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) to more graduate entrepreneurship offerings and classes have helped boost the school’s reputation as an entrepreneurship leader. For the last two years, the school has taken the top spot in the annual rankings of the best graduate programs in entrepreneurship by Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine. But not much attention has been paid to the university’s undergraduate population, many of whom, like Shang, have a growing appetite for entrepreneurship offerings.
Hugo Van Vuuren, a co-founder of Xfund and a general partner, saw a need for a program that would help teach undergraduates what it means to have an “entrepreneurial mindset,” explains Halah AlQahtani, Xfund’s operations and education associate. A growing number of undergraduate students had been visiting Xfund’s offices in the last few years, asking questions about what classes to take to expose them to entrepreneurship and how to get involved in the startup world as a college student. Xfund is unique in that it targets student entrepreneurs, from engineers to liberal arts majors.
“We wanted to try to reach students who were not necessarily already plugged into the entrepreneurship community,” AlQahtani adds. “We saw a gap in terms of what Xfund can do and opportunities were already out there for us to connect students to things they weren’t aware of.”
‘GETTING UNDERGRADS TO HAVE A FIRST EXPOSURE TO ENTREPRENEURSHIP’For help in designing the program, Xfund’s staff reached out to the leaders of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Harvard Business School. The two schools have been working closely together on entrepreneurship efforts in recent years, she said, and the university hopes to build on that momentum when Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences moves across the Charles River to to a new science and engineering complex in Allston in a few years, becoming the neighbor of Harvard Business School and the i-Lab.
For the Xbootcamp pilot, a group of professors and administrative leaders from both schools gave the Xfund team ideas and feedback on how to best develop the program. For example, Felix Oberholzer-Gee, the senior associate dean of the MBA program, suggested that Xfund directly involve MBA students in the design and delivery of the program. He also tapped Tom Eisenmann, a professor of business administration and the faculty co-chair of the HBS Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, to serve as faculty director of the Xbootcamp, a role he eagerly took on.
“This was really about getting undergraduates to have a first exposure to entrepreneurship,” Eisenmann says. ”It was essentially the what, how and why of entrepreneurship.”