You Don’t Need to Drop Out of School to Become an Entrepreneur

By Cem ErdemCem_portrait-high-150x150
Founder, President and CEO of Augusoft, Inc.

Many say the U.S. is falling behind China and other countries when it comes to producing engineers and scientists. However, I’m not too worried about it. Why? For as long as we continue to produce entrepreneurs, we will continue to lead the world.

Innovation and entrepreneurship comes from free-thinking, creative societies. The U.S. remains the leader in innovation and entrepreneurship because it cultivates an environment for people to take risks. One disturbing trend that has gotten my attention of late in discussions of entrepreneurship is the perception that to become an entrepreneur, you must drop out of school. The media love to talk about successful entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Michael Dell or Mark Zuckerberg, who are all college dropouts. Why is this? Is there something more our schools, particularly community colleges, should be doing to keep our entrepreneurial students interested in staying in school?

Schools in general are about conforming and fitting in. Encouraging and fostering an environment where free-spirited students can thrive and express their individuality more is one way to attract more entrepreneurial students. This could be done by offering more customized programming that allows students the ability to choose the curriculum that best suits their needs and goals.

Offering certificate programs in entrepreneurship is another good way to attract and retain more entrepreneurial students. Dakota County Technical College (DCTC) here in Minnesota is a good example. DCTC has found that many students studying to become graphic artists, landscaping or auto body professionals, for instance, are also interested in starting their own business. Coupling a two-year program with a certificate in entrepreneurship helps these students to more quickly launch a new business.

Another way to encourage entrepreneurship is to organize events that can bring entrepreneurs together. Many successful entrepreneurs will attribute their success to luck. I believe you can increase your luck by being at the right place at the right time. With these events you can create opportunities for your entrepreneur students to meet and share ideas with each other, as well as bring in successful, accomplished entrepreneurs as speakers and guests.

Become a Magnet for Entrepreneurs

New entrepreneurs also need role models. Last year I had the opportunity to visit LaunchPad, an incubator program at the University of Miami. They bring in mentors to help young entrepreneurs, and even help them find investors. Through this program, they have become a magnet for students who are thinking about starting their own businesses. And there are a lot of them in this new generation.

Our community college system also serves as a gateway for many immigrants to become productive citizens, who, according to research from the Kauffman Foundation, are twice as likely to start a new business. The community college system played an important role in helping me to assimilate from an immigrant to a proud American in a short amount of time. I can tell you that if you decide to live in Turkey, France or many other places in the world, even after decades, you will still feel like an American living in a foreign country. But here, we make our immigrants feel like Americans fast, and the community college system plays an important role in that.

For community colleges to become more entrepreneurial, the leaders of these institutions must also think and act more like entrepreneurs. Just as most companies often take on the personality of their CEO, community colleges often take on the personality of their president. Since I joined the board of NACCE a few years ago, I’m happy to see that more and more presidents are embracing entrepreneurship for their school.

Entrepreneurship is our future. Small businesses, particularly new businesses, are where the vast majority of new jobs are created in this country. If we are to remain the world leader in entrepreneurship and innovation, we must continue to feed and give our future leaders not only the knowledge, but the freedom to innovate and create. And I do not believe that successful entrepreneurs only come from schools such as Stanford, Harvard, or MIT. If we believe that a good entrepreneur is someone who is driven, with passion and persistence, let me tell you, our community colleges are full of these people. I know because I was sitting in the classrooms shoulder to shoulder with many of them.