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A troubling thought has been rattling around my mind since the June Alumni Review arrived. Thanks to the comment thread in one of this week’s Beyond the Log seminar session, I’ve been inspired to post. (Note: there have been more relevant posts since I started this one — particularly yesterday’s Institute of Finance post, but this post is already too long, so it’s going up as is.) In a discussion of “decreas[ing] the penalty placed on international applicants” with the ultimate goal being to “accept a class with the most academically talented and ambitious students from around the world,” Ken pointed out:

the issue which echoes across the educational system . . . creativity and entrepreneurship. The issue, which parallels the problems of Germany and elsewhere, is that you need a new economic system, and people who will lead it, and the people who go to Sciences Po, while incredibly intelligent and ‘clever,’ are not, necessarily, risk-takers.

They’re happy with $140K/yr (plus possibly investments) in a country where, down in Fontainbleau, the children taking the metro will never know lives where they have more than $30K/yr in resources. . .

But that’s what Williams can offer. . . Because the French need what Williams offers. And we could benefit a lot, from giving our students access to that world…

“Creativity and entrepreneurship,” indeed. The alumni review article (link to the June magazine — as David has pointed out, the online magazine unhelpfully doesn’t allow links to individual articles) took a tour through Eph entrepreneurs who have brought their businesses to the Berkshires. That’s living the dream — Williams College at one end of the street and your company at the other. But largely absent from the article — except for a brief mention of the influence of the late Prof. Dick Sabot on Bo Peabody ’94 — was any indication of how the subjects’ Williams education contributed to their business undertakings, other than drawing them to the Berkshire setting.

Now, there’s no doubt that an athletically-minded liberal arts college like ours provides the ideal flexible set of tools for just about anything – including starting your own business. Or, notwithstanding the Peabody example, most entrepreneurs will benefit from first working in a more structured environment.

That still leaves open the question — does Williams do enough to assist students who are thinking about an entrepreneurial future or who might think that way, if the opportunity presented itself?

As far as I know, the only curricular commitment to the topic is in Winter Study, where Professor Stephen Sheppard is sponsoring two courses:

“ECON 12 – So You Want to Start a Business Some Day—Understanding the Business Plan”, with Steve Fogel, the Program Director of Berkshire Enterprises Entrepreneurial Training Program, as the instructor; and

“ECON 17 – Entrepreneurship,” with Dr. Jeffrey Thomas, a Boston-based bioinformatics entrepreneur, as the instructor.

This isn’t surprising, as Winter Study has always been the place where the curriculum expands to areas otherwise considered insufficiently academic or excessively professional. (Kudos to Prof. Sheppard, by the way, who appears to be a go-to guy for sponsorship of WSP programs in economics — his name appears after virtually all of them. Only a few other Economics professors appear to be taking a similar interest in Winter Study).

Is there anything from the regular curriculum a student should consider taking as preparation for an independent future? Although the overall Leadership Studies curriculum appears starved for courses that examine business leadership, Leadership Studies 295, “Leadership and Management,” is perhaps relevant. (Also missing from both the Leadership Studies and Psychology curricula is anything studying leadership or the dynamics if small groups — but hopefully that’s an area students are getting a lot of experience with outside the classroom).

Accounting is the kind of pre-professional course that Williams frowns on, so it’s only available during winter study. However, the Math/Stats department has a couple of introductory courses in statistics that are offered every semester and that every student – regardless of their interests – should probably consider. (Bonus: some of the introductory courses are taught by academic entrepreneur Dick De Veaux).

What about outside the classroom? It looks like there’s been a Williams Entrepreneurship Society in the recent past, as well as an Eph Business Association that brought Herb Allen ’62, James Lee ’75 and Bo Peabody as speakers. Is either of these groups still active?

OCC counselor Robin Meyer has wisely set up a separate resource page for those interested in “business” and thinking of something other than investment banking or consulting. The various endowed summer internships are all directed at supporting students in non-profit or governmental endeavors, but I know there are a number of smaller alumni enterprises that come to campus looking to hire interns (I understand there’s more to David than just EphBlog and taking stAmudents to lunch).

With respect to these efforts, it seems a mighty weak brew. Compare it to the efforts directed to encouraging/supporting so-called “public service” careers. And compared to many competitors, it’s unimpressive. Middlebury has its Project on Creativity and Innovation, subsuming a winter-term offering into a prominent program that includes dedicated physical space, an idea competition with a summer-earnings subsidy, and more. Swarthmore has an annual entrepreneurship conference with nearly a decade of history drawing prominent alumni. Even Amherst promotes “social entrepreneurship” through its Center for Community Engagement.

Am I missing something? What curricular or cocurricular experiences should an Eph ’12 or Eph ’13 be taking advantage of?

This is obviously more important to more than just attracting international students — and the right international students, of course. The Williams interests in having a robust and thriving community of Eph entrepreneurs begin with the nakedly financial: professionals get only to the upper middle class (especially if they eschew legal entrepreneurship for jobs more conducive to contributing to EphBlog!); entrepreneurs, by and large, make up the ranks of the wildly rich. They extend to the immediately enriching: a broader coterie of employers looking to hire alumni (and provide internships), potentially providing students with a better set of opportunities to explore their enthusiasms. And don’t we need some compelling new names for the honorary degree and graduation speaker pool, too?