Today's college students are eager as ever to take a stab at entrepreneurship — if not for the potential riches made by billionaires...

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Today’s college students are eager as ever to take a stab at entrepreneurship — if not for the potential riches made by billionaires such as Michael Dell or Bill Gates, then for the satisfaction of self-employment and invaluable business experience.

Though mixing academics with business can be tricky, college may actually be the ideal time to pursue entrepreneurship. Because students are often free from “real-world” concerns such as finding a job or buying a house, many say they are able to take greater risks and spend more time developing a business.

Nobody knows exactly how many college entrepreneurs are out there, but anecdotal evidence shows their numbers are growing, said Gerry Hills, director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization, which Hills founded five years ago, has grown into a network of 120 chapters and 14,000 members nationwide.

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In response to burgeoning interest, entrepreneurial education has also expanded significantly since the 1980s. And in the last five or six years, colleges and universities have added more substantial programs — including entrepreneurial majors, minors and business plan competitions.

According to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurship, at least 1,500 colleges and universities provide training for young entrepreneurs.

Todd Masonis and Cameron Ring, 2001 graduates of Stanford University, said they built the “classic Internet startup,” called netElement, in 1999. Although netElement never took off, the experience they got helped them successfully establish their current company, Plaxo.

Masonis said one of the most important lessons they learned was that the ultimate goal of a business cannot simply be getting funding.

“You have to be doing it for the right reason,” Masonis said. “You have to genuinely want to build something.”