Front Range

The New College Try

Colorado colleges develop curriculum for budding startup superstars.

August 2015

—Stuart Bradford

Startup superstars Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Jay Z all have beautiful homes, outsize influence, and bank accounts that are the envy of many small nations. What they don’t have are college diplomas—and we’re guessing they’re fine with the trade-off. With role models like this, startup-mad adolescents are beginning to wonder why they should spend four years muddling through Goethe at universities when all they want to do is emulate Gates. “That’s a good pressure on us to have,” says Phil Weiser, dean of the University of Colorado Boulder Law School and founder of the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship, a research institute at CU. The fact that college is no longer a no-brainer for burgeoning entrepreneurs, Weiser says, is forcing Colorado schools to create practical, hands-on learning opportunities so budding Elon Musks don’t take a pass. 

In 2014, CU began offering a degree in entrepreneurship and launched Catalyze CU, an accelerator for students and faculty that doesn’t take an equity stake in companies and has already bred a winner: Shinesty, a website that hawks flamboyant clothing like American flag adult onesies, has raised $100,000 in Series A investment. This semester, the Silicon Flatirons Center is rolling out a program called Entrepreneurs in Residence, which initially will bring four seasoned entrepreneurs to campus each year and pay them $25,000 stipends to be mentors. If professors need guest lecturers, they’ll lecture. If Catalyze CU needs coaches, they’ll coach. 

If that’s still too ivory tower for you, consider Watson University, a Boulder college started in 2013 by Eric Glustrom, who co-founded Educate!, which teaches entrepreneurship in Uganda. Watson, also a nonprofit, is half incubator, half university. It accepts 15 to 20 students per semester who have already developed ideas for businesses that will benefit society. (Watson calls them “social entrepreneurs.”) Students live in cabins at Chautauqua Park and attend self-led workshops to learn practical skills, such as how to build a website or register with the IRS. Even if students’ startups fail, they can leave Boulder with accredited degrees in entrepreneurship (via a partnership with Lynn University in Florida) earned in two-and-a-half years. “We’re a new experiment focused on action-based education,” says Watson vice president Romain Vakilitabar. And as everyone knows, there’s no better place for experimentation than college.