Golfers toss blades of grass into the air to see which way the wind blows. Academia as practiced at the University of Bridgeport is no different, plumbing student desires instead of throwing grass and recognizing a fresh breeze of entrepreneurialism blowing across the economy.
A generation or two ago, students looked to lock into careers. Now, according to UB’s Ernest C. Trefz School of Business Dean Lloyd Gibson, students can expect to hold 14 different jobs between graduation and their late 30s.
Citing “a pent-up demand” for entrepreneurial offerings that he noticed upon arriving at UB 3.5 years ago, Gibson said the university now offers a business minor in entrepreneurialism to accompany any undergraduate major—English to engineering—and last August opened a business incubator that is booming.
“We didn’t really know what interest there would be,” said Gibson of the incubator. “We thought maybe a dozen students would be interested at first. As of now, after one semester, there are 55 students in the program.”
Gibson noted those accepted into the incubator’s program come in two varieties: business beginners and those who already possess a business plan. Many are themselves the children of entrepreneurs. The Trefz School of Business serves both undergraduate- and graduate-level studies. Ernest Trefz and his family-controlled business fund the incubator.
The incubator is known as the Student Entrepreneur Center and is headed by Elena Cahill, entrepreneur, attorney, UB graduate and UB senior lecturer, along with five advising businesspersons. It requires admission among those already admitted to UB. “It’s a bit of a privilege; it’s a key-controlled office,” Gibson said. “These are not just apps being created.”
The incubator’s first two launches will be businesses focused on psychology and martial arts. “I anticipate we will have four launches by May,” Cahill said.
“The loyalty of businesses to employees has changed,” Gibson said, explaining the push toward an entrepreneurial model. “The reality is they are businesses and their mission is not the family or the long-term situation for employees. Employees have responded accordingly.”
He cited the 2002 book, Free Agent Nation, which is subtitled, “The Future of Working for Yourself,” and said, “Employers and individuals are all free agents today. Individuals must take responsibility for the fact they won’t be working for the same company for 40 years.
“There has been a general change in society,” he said. “People have multiple careers.”
“The model has changed,” said Frederick Harmon, UB professor of accounting from the beginner to advanced level and of advanced CPA prep courses. “Today, corporations are more project-oriented. A project requires identification, it requires mobilized resources and it produces results for a strategic plan. For a project to begin, end and demonstrate results is the model that transcends both the manufacturing and service sectors. People are now hired to bring specific skills to whatever that project might be.”
Harmon said the skills of entrepreneurialism are in demand. “Our students know how to take charge of a project and see it through,” he said. “I tell students these entrepreneurial skills—ownership and driving to conclusion—will have value for anybody.”
“Everyone is an entrepreneur of their own careers,” Gibson said. “It’s your responsibility.”
Gibson added that more buttoned-down companies, too, need people who think outside the box.
“Not everyone is an Apple or a Google,” he said. “It’s not easy to create that environment.” He named a large consumer-products manufacturer and said it possessed the clout to market goods, but farmed out the development of its products. “It creates a freer environment, not hindered by the corporate structure.”
Harmon shared an anecdote of traveling to the old Bell Labs in New Jersey, which was home to some of the world’s greatest scientists. He was surprised to learn a company like Ma Bell had embraced entrepreneurialism and was hiring interns at $120,000 per year. He said that salary would translate to $500,000 today. “When I asked if this was excessive, I was told, ‘All I need is one idea and it will pay for itself.’”
Citing his specialty of accounting, Harmon said, “The traditional path was you finished and got your degree and went to work for one of the Big Four firms. You worked 90 to 100 hours per week, working yourself to death, and began your climb up the public accounting ladder. Today, a lot of students want to go into the small-firm environment where they get a much greater exposure to a wide variety of clients.”
Harmon suggested starting small for those who might like eventually to go it alone. “If you’re good with numbers you might begin by doing your aunt’s taxes,” he said. “If you do a good job, that client becomes an annuity.” He said advising now accounts for about half of an accountant’s business. “You really want to be the business’s partner is the model today,” he said.
Gibson said that, perhaps counterintuitively, arts students often make the best entrepreneurs. He has two daughters, one an attorney and MBA and the other an actress.
“Some of the stronger entrepreneurial attitudes are in the arts,” he said. “In the acting business, you might get a job that lasts a month and then you have to interview again. For them to be successful, they have to be entrepreneurs. If they aren’t, no one is going to take them around by the hand. They’ve got to be proactive.”
“That’s something this school is very, very dedicated to,” Harmon said.