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Entrepreneurship for the Rest of Us: Classes Target Non-Business Majors

What does someone need to succeed in the arts? The question might bring to mind qualities such as talent, passion and determination...but what about business acumen?

Though the stereotype of creative types may be that they're too busy pursuing their artistic vision to bog themselves down in the world of dollars and cents, the reality is that many artists go into business for themselves and could benefit from some training in the basics of entrepreneurship. And that's true of other careers that aren't always associated with entrepreneurship as well.

"Engineers who create software programs or apps, architects, attorneys, doctors, dentists — there's a business side to all of these professions," says Mitchell Weiss, the founder of the University of Hartford’s Center for Personal Financial Responsibility.

Weiss, the former CEO of a commercial finance company, is among a small but growing number of academics across the country leading college classes aimed at helping students who aren't majoring in business gain a strong understanding of entrepreneurship. Weiss teaches an entrepreneurship class at the University of Hartford and just launched a new hybrid personal finance and entrepreneurship class online at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Other universities offering entrepreneurship classes for non-business majors include Brigham Young University in Utah, Kent State University in Ohio and California State University at Fullerton, among others.

In today's economy, entrepreneurship training may be more valuable than ever. The number of small businesses in the U.S. has increased 49 percent since 1982, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Professor John Bradley Jackson, director of the Center of Entrepreneurship at California State University's Mihaylo College of Business and Economics, said he noticed a trend of recent graduates working as independent consultants instead of heading right into entry-level jobs.

"The transition for the college graduate to the workforce isn't what it used to be," Jackson said, but added that "entrepreneurship is a way of thinking — trying to make the planet better through small changes — and that type of mindset is perfect for the gig economy."

From Physics to Fashion to Photography

The entrepreneurship class at California State University at Fullerton challenges students to come up with business plans, assigns them mentors and divides them into teams to develop business models. Near the end of the class, students present their models to a panel of investors who give them feedback on their work.

Jackson said that students from a diverse array of majors bring a host of helpful skills and talents to the class. The class' success stories included a master's level physics student who used her science background as well as what she learned in the entrepreneurship class to open a pop-up toy store that encourages customers to experiment with educational toys — including, of course, science toys — before committing to a purchase.

At Kent State in Ohio, interest in entrepreneurship classes from the university's fashion students inspired an entire minor focusing on entrepreneurship for non-business majors. The fashion students are more likely to become self-employed after graduation, said Denise M. Lee, the university's program coordinator for entrepreneurship.

"We wanted to set them up for the best courses that would prepare them to start up their own companies in the future," she said.

The minor includes classes in accounting, finance and marketing, as well as a class that consists mainly of visits from working entrepreneurs who discuss their experiences.

"There's so much to be learned from listening to the successes and failures of other entrepreneurs," Lee said.

At the University of Hartford, Weiss has found that his class has also benefited students who were already entrepreneurs. He noted one student who gained new insights into his small photography business through a lesson on the cash-conversion cycle — the time it takes to create products, collect money on sales and pay for supplies.

The student, Weiss said, regularly spent money on photography equipment, materials for photo books and hiring help. The class, he said, gave him a better understanding how to time his charges to clients and negotiate payments with suppliers so he could cover his expenses and make a profit.

"What he was able to focus on was the relationship between days in accounts payable and days in accounts receivable," Weiss said. "It gave give him an awareness of how interconnected these two parts of his business truly are."

Overcoming Number-Crunching Nerves

In his new Rutgers class, Weiss spends the first half of the class covering personal finance subjects, such as student loan payments. It's an important step to helping students achieve success as small business owners, he said.

"If they know how to run their households, they know how to run their businesses," Weiss said.

Another critical step? Helping some students overcome their distaste for math. Weiss' assignments for the Rutgers class require that students complete math problems related to personal finance. What helps, he said, is providing students with information on various financial calculators available online. Then, he said, "they get used to working with numbers, and surprise themselves that they can actually do it."

Jackson, of California State, said that working with financial statements is challenging for non-business majors and business majors alike, but the university offers supplemental help if students get stuck. Kent State's Lee also encourages students to persevere through what can appear to be daunting number-crunching to create balance sheets, income statements, and more.

"I force them through the process a few times," she said, "and then they shrug their shoulders and say, 'That wasn't so bad.'"