Last summer, Eric Koester was at the end of his rope. An adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, Koester scheduled a meeting with Jeff Reid, head of the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative, that he planned to quit after the semester. Koester, widely considered a serial entrepreneur, has built a career around building businesses—either his own or others. After teaching for three years, he’d grown weary of making little headway with students.
“I did, frankly, get disillusioned a little bit,” Koester concedes on a phone call with Poets&Quants. After all, Koester explains, he didn’t feel like he was making a difference. The data, he says, backed up his feelings. Out of the 300 or so students to go through his courses during a year, only about one or two were actually starting companies, Koester explains.
After listening to Koester’s laments, his good friend and fellow entrepreneur, Shane Mac, gave him some timely and unexpected advice.
“Push the limits then,” Mac advised Koester in a text message. “Do something crazy with your last semester. What could you do that would change a student’s whole career trajectory?”
ONE SEMESTER-LONG COURSE, ONE BOOK WRITTEN BY EACH STUDENT
Further discussion led to an answer. Koester would have his students—mainly juniors at the McDonough School—write a book by the end of the semester. “We had no idea if it was possible to do,” Koester admits. He and Mac had each published a book in their 20’s. But most of the students were in their very early 20’s. And they had a span of a few months to write their books. So they lowered their expectations, figuring if one student completed a book and entertained the thought of publishing it, the course would be a success.
“That was my expectation,” Koester confirms.
Turns out, 16 of the 40 students in the course published books. Koester stuck around for the spring semester and the results were even better. 19 of 23 students published books, which are now available on Amazon. The books boasted a variety of topics, including how-to guides for women breaking into the outdoor industry; making it in hip-hop; and earning at least 20% in tips for waitresses and waiters.
‘I ALSO REALLY DIDN’T WANT EVERYONE TO GO TO THE DEAN … AND SAY, “THIS GUY’S A LOONY”’
But it definitely did not go off without hitches. The first came during the very first class last fall, which Koester admits was nerve-wracking and frightening.
“As much as I wanted to do something crazy,” Koester says, “I also really didn’t want everyone to go to the dean and say that they were dropping the class and say, ‘this guy’s a loony.’”
Spoiler: no one dropped. But it was definitely considered. Koester would later find out Shiv Jhangiani—one of the first students to have his book published—planned to drop out as soon as Koester announced the semester’s plan. “He said, ‘I pulled out my phone to see when the drop date was,’” Koester laughs.
Jhangiani wasn’t alone.
“There was a lot of buzz right outside the classroom that day,” recalls Will McDonald, another to publish a book after the first offering of the course. “It wasn’t good buzz,” he adds.
EARLY HESITATION AND FRUSTRATION
McDonald had friends take the same course in earlier semesters and says he had an idea of what to expect. “I didn’t totally know what to think of it at first,” McDonald recalls feeling when Koester made the announcement. “Some of my friends came out and immediately thought about dropping the class.”
Jaclyn Digregorio could sympathize. While dropping the class was never the plan, she pretty much wrote it off as to helping her actually launch a business.
“I was frustrated and confused,” she admits—and rightfully so. Digregorio wanted to use the course to launch a business idea she’d been cultivating for at least a year. She was set on starting a business her senior year. And this course was supposed to play a big role in that path. “I was hoping the class would be a way to make that transition,” Digregorio says. “When I heard we were writing a book, I didn’t see the connection at all.”
But Digregorio was also admittedly intrigued—and inspired by the challenge. Her sentiments were the same throughout the class. But instead of a mass exodus, Koester says the class doubled in size from the first week to the second.
“Students are wildly in love with it,” Koester says of the course. “I have an over-subscribed class for this fall already. But I still think there is this generic question of how does it fit into the pedagogy of the university.”
HOW DOES IT FIT IN A TRADITIONAL UNIVERSITY LEARNING ENVIRONMENT?
It’s a good question. On the one hand, it’s a novel way to teaching any sort of college course—especially an entrepreneurship course. On the other, it is, at-worst, an uncouth way of teaching a course. Koester says he’s not totally convinced if he proposed the class in a traditional setting it would have been approved. After presenting the course at an academic entrepreneurship conference last January, Koester says he was approached by many colleagues at other universities with the same rhetoric: they loved the idea, but would never get it approved at their respective universities.
It definitely doesn’t fit within the traditional confines and inner-workings of an American university. To be sure, Koester being an adjunct professor who didn’t hold a Ph.D., doesn’t help. “I’m this outsider bringing in this new thing that is different,” Koester admits, noting his wife is a tenured-track academic. “I think there still is this element of Eric’s a loony, to be totally honest.”