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Utah Business

Your degree in entrepreneurship isn’t worth it

Nate Carr, founder of DoorDash rival Trolley, registered for BYU because he felt like he should.

“Everyone I knew went to college and got a degree,” he says. “A history of higher education in my background didn’t necessarily motivate me to go to college––the only path that I knew was college.”

Carr’s struggle to find a major he loved left him doubting the entire process. “A degree in entrepreneurship takes four years to complete and for what… a piece of paper?” he says. ”Effective paths help you reach your goal quickly and successfully. [My college degree] wasn’t an effective system, so I dropped out.”

Robert Bishop, a serial tech entrepreneur, says his motivation to enroll also came from social expectations. “I was confused,” he says. “I thought you had to study what you were going to be, and I had no idea what I was going to be. I just started taking classes that interested me.”

These interesting classes turned out to be high level classes that required prerequisites. Bishop took what he could, and then lucked out with a job offer. “I left because I was offered a masters-level salary in a tech startup at a time when there was no school for this burgeoning new industry.”

Years later, some founders believe the business higher education system still isn’t meeting these demands. Enter John Richards, founder of Startup Ignition and a BYU graduate. A couple years ago he stepped away from his teaching position to work for Google, and decided not to come back once it ended––“I did not go back because there was a better way [to teach].” 

Richards points to the way business schools are currently structured, “entrepreneurship is a second-class citizen topic.” It’s one of the many shortcomings of degree programs, he says. “Lots of lip service [is paid to the field], but the status is far below accounting, marketing, and finance.”

What does a lower status look like? Richards points to underfunded programs, instructors that haven’t started a venture before, and lack of real-world experience required for quality mentoring, and high turnover rates.

But bishop knows his way around a startup. He sold his first tech company at 22 years old, and his second less than a decade later. The pattern continued year after year, starting and exiting a total of five tech companies. Amid all this success, there’s one thing Bishop didn’t have: a bachelor’s degree.

“I’ve never had an entrepreneur––or anyone in my business dealings––ask me about any kind of degree,” he says. “I have a lifetime of practical experience in business, and I know tech. That’s my world, and that’s more than enough.”

But then he was invited to teach higher education courses in entrepreneurship, and even came across the opportunity to head the tech department of a film giant. Suddenly, his missing degree became a black eye. He began starting off interviews with a shrug: “Just to let you know, I don’t have a degree.” 

Bishop lost the academic teaching opportunity and received an automated rejection email for the tech position. “When we’re in our specific world it’s okay to be ‘degree-less,’” he says. “Outside of it, I think there’s lots of ‘we don’t require a degree,’ which is not true in practice.”

The missed opportunities didn’t shake Bishop, though. If he needs a degree to do the job, it’s not for him. “I’ve been successful in my career because I’ve been able to look ahead and see what others don’t yet see,” he says. “An opportunity for disruption. And in my opinion, that’s what’s coming for higher education.”

The first change that has to happen? Public perception of a college degree.

Scott Paul, one of Utah’s more prolific angel investors, has an MBA from the University of Utah. Even after receiving the diploma, he decided not to put more stock into a degree than into a person. “All we see college education is as a tradition––we don’t have our own ‘whys.’ I don’t hold degrees against anyone, definitely not, but I don’t put the weight on it that some people claim we should.”

His reason for this is simple: leaving college doesn’t mean quitting learning. All of the founders agreed that education was worth investing into––just not in the way it was currently being dispersed. True to form, they found different ways to shake it up.

At BYU, Carr took classes that showed him the basic ropes, and then he took his learning into his own hands with mentoring programs, select courses, and hands-on experience. “I believe that I’ve created an effective system that will provide me with an education that can’t be bought even at the most prestigious universities,” Carr says.

Bishop also crafted his own educational opportunities: after dropping out, he received on-the-job programming training that predisposed him to the skills he’d need to start and sell tech companies. “I’ve always joked that when things are moving really slowly, they’re moving at the speed of academia,” Bishop says. “The disruption isn’t going to come through these universities and their new programs!”

While Richards taught business courses at his alma mater for over a decade, his two-year hiatus from teaching to work for Google turned into a career change––instructing bootcamps. “A three-month cohort teaching hard skills and being taught by ‘been there, done that’ instructors will outperform a four-year degree,” he says.

Richards thinks this solution, customized learning opportunities focused on practical skills, is in bootcamp education: mini-colleges for entrepreneurs. He invites big universities to do three things to revolutionize their entrepreneurial education programs: Lean startup teaching curriculums, on-campus entrepreneurship accelerators, and opportunities to fund student ventures through competitions that offer both mentoring and money. 

But he doubts it will happen, or even that they can. “Unfortunately, the change is happening at a snail’s pace,” Richards says. “Short-term intensive training outperforms in-class busy work, so bootcamps should outperform university programs over time.”

Richards’ bootcamps are just the disruption Bishop predicts. “With the coronavirus, we saw the tech capabilities of universities and schools spike,” he says. “We saw more and more virtual courses offered from companies. We know it’s possible. Now we just have to start expecting it.

Despite all this, the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees has climbed in the United States. In Utah, business degrees lead the pack. It’s a symbiotic relationship: as more students register for these degrees, Utah universities have strengthened their programs––in 2019, the University of Utah unveiled the Master’s of Business Creation and Weber State started a Seed Funding program.

But change is slow, and education lacking. That’s why many of Utah’s entrepreneurs chose to ditch the degree altogether and get some experience instead. 

Jacqueline is a Master of Accounting student at the University of Utah. Specializing in tax, she's interested in business, government, and the intersection of the two. When she's not studying or writing, she loves to run, play Candy Crush, and read novels

Comments (2)

  • Matt Warnock

    Totally agree. A degree in entrepreneurship just tells potential employers that you have no interest in working for them. Entrepreneurial opportunities never follow course outlines or wait for graduation. College professors are rarely good entrepreneurs, or vice versa. Entrepreneurial skills are rarely taught in the classroom–even in entrepreneurship classes. Marketing, MBA, business analytics, operations, accounting, and many others, yes–I don’t regret my MBA for a second. But a degree in entrepreneurship is like a degree in war correspondence or classroom courses in political campaigning or battlefield surgery–experience is the ONLY thing that matters. Universities offer degrees in entrepreneurship because undergrads think it will help them–but it won’t. Get a degree (not entrepreneurship), get some business experience, and study out on your own how real working businesses are built. Its a complex and quickly changing world. Real entrepreneurs are CONSTANTLY learning, but rarely (if ever) in classrooms.

  • Dave

    If you hear someone saying “university degrees are worthless,” they’re probably trolling for clicks (or selling an accelerator program.) I’ve been through two programs and they were valuable bootcamps to help you put together an investor pitch, but there’s no time to train you how to run a business once you hopefully get funded. Marketing, product development, competitive analysis, hiring and HR, legal issues, and anything related to finance or cash flow – you get that in business school.

    Let’s be clear about the generosity of angel investors: this is their livelihood – it’s not personal, this is business for them. You get a bit of mentoring, a few introductions and a free lunch, and then it either turns into a deal or they forget you ever existed and move onto the next opportunity.

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