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Colleges cater to students' entrepreneurial ambitions

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Chad Olsen shows off ByME
Chad Olsen, 25, pulls up ByME to use a deal at Tea Garden near the University of Minnesota. Olsen is the CEO and founder of ByME, an application similar to Groupon, but for students.
Will Matsuda/MPR News

Empowered by technology and impatient with the limits of conventional jobs, an increasing number of Minnesota college students are showing an interest in working for themselves, campus officials say.

In recent years, some universities in the state established programs to teach them how to do it.

Such entrepreneurship classes are not just luring business majors. Students from the arts and sciences also want to strike out.

"In the last 20 or 30 years, we're at our greatest point of interest in the field of entrepreneurship as a viable career choice," said Alec Johnson, associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas. 

Technology is behind many of today's student start-ups — but being an entrepreneur can be more than making the next killer app. 

Students have made devices for the agriculture and health-care fields, started breweries, set up student-oriented services and created clothing lines — and sold many of their products and services online.

One such student was Chad Olsen. While studying advertising at the University of Minnesota, he became disillusioned by the lack of job opportunities at companies he'd interned with.

In 2011, during his senior year, he used about $500 to start ByME Inc., which produces a mobile app offering a Groupon-style array of deals for college students.

Now 25, Olsen works on his business during the day while doing mobile-app consulting work at night to support himself. 

He grinds away for 60 hours a week and earns as much as $40,000 a year — small money compared to the corporate salary he said he could be making. 

But "at the end of the day," Olsen said, "I can go to bed knowing that I'm building something that's changing the world - [something] of my own ideas. And of course, the big dream is to someday sell this thing."

His business appears to be picking up. 

ByME sticker
Businesses that partner with ByMe indicate their participation with stickers.
Will Matsuda/MPR News

Since its college days, ByME has grown from five clients to 30, and Olsen has plans to expand into St. Paul later this year. He finally started paying himself a $12,000-a-year salary, and said an angel investor has injected more than $200,000 into the business.

Entrepreneurship faculty at some Minnesota campuses say they're seeing more students like Olsen these days, though colleges have little hard data on the subject.

In 1998, the University of Minnesota and its Carlson School of Business saw only a handful of startups. Today, it evaluates more than 100 concepts for businesses a year, and last year launched more than two dozen startups, said John Stavig, program director of the university's Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship.

That number likely will go up now that the National Science Foundation is giving U of M $100,000 a year for the next three years to help student entrepreneurs in science and engineering. That's 10 times what Holmes normally gives students.

U of M officials are trying to harness the growing student interest in entrepreneurship - and propel it even further.

From the couple of entrepreneurship courses that drew about 70 students 15 years ago, the university has seen its programs at the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship grow to 20 classes that enroll 1,300 students. 

"We've seen an explosion of interest amongst students," Stavig said. They see entrepreneurial skills "as a necessity ... and [think] to some extent it's sexy."

At the University of St. Thomas, enrollment almost doubled to more than 100 in the first six years of its Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, which it founded less than a decade ago.

Minnesota State University-Moorhead has gotten into the game as well. Last fall it started its minor and certificate programs in entrepreneurship, and this fall will be adding an entrepreneurship class to its MBA program.

Close up of ByME app
Due to the success of ByME around the University of Minnesota, Olsen hopes to expand his company throughout St. Paul.
Will Matsuda/MPR News

Entrepreneurship "is really getting to be part of the culture of Fargo-Moorhead," said Marsha Weber, dean of the business school.

Although entrepreneurship education has been around for decades, some faculty and students in Minnesota say this generation of students is different from previous ones in its attitude. 

Many would-be entrepreneurs have watched their parents deal with job losses - especially during the recent downturn - and don't want to rely on someone else for a paycheck. 

They demand more job satisfaction, and want more control over their working conditions. 

"They're less patient for opportunities," Stavig said. "They're more interested in creative areas and areas of innovation, and being able to make an impact on what they're doing."

No longer are they hearing they have to first work 15-20 years to gain the necessary experience necessary to start their own businesses.

"We're not too young to add value and be able to do something this big," said Courtney Wosick of Milwaukee, a recent University of St. Thomas music-business graduate and aspiring entrepreneur. "And I think a lot of people our age have ... an idea that they want to follow through with."

Thanks to technology, they don't face many of the barriers - such as large start-up costs — that past entrepreneurs did. A student can develop an app or start a website and get into business on a shoestring.

"New technologies have changed how this generation thinks about business," Johnson said.

As Olsen and Wosick show, student entrepreneurs aren't just the business-school types.

Sensing an area of potential growth, universities are encouraging students in other disciplines, including music and design, to take entrepreneurship classes so they can start a business in their fields — or at least understand how the business side works.

Carlson has been designing entrepreneurship classes for students in specific majors. MSU-Moorhead is working to introduce entrepreneurship minors into other disciplines on campus. The University of St. Thomas is working on an initiative to spread entrepreneurship education across the campus.

"For decades, [owning a business] has seemed out of reach to most people," Johnson said. "Now it feels within reach."