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Start a Business in B-School

Delece Smith-Barrow

For many business school students, there's no need to wait until graduation to work on a startup. Developing a business idea in between - or even during - class is ideal.

Gayle Laakmann McDowell, a 2011 graduate of the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, built CareerCup, which helps computer programmers prepare for interviews at tech companies, as a student.

"I tried as much as possible to leverage certain projects for my business," she says.

For example, she used a class assignment on pricing to figure out how to price products for her own company. "It was a great way of being sort of able to kill two birds with one stone," she says. McDowell now works full time for herself and has published two books on how to land jobs at technology companies.

[Move from family business to b-school.]

Experts say more students are choosing a career path similar to McDowell's: starting a business while in business school. Below is a list of tips for effectively using b-school to become a boss before graduation.

-- Consider schools with a strong network: Through its Owen Entrepreneurship Center, Vanderbilt University helps students connect with people who can help make their business dreams a reality.

"We can bring together mentors who are former entrepreneurs who can help our students work on things," says Germain Boer, director of the Owen Entrepreneurship Center. "We can connect them to alums who've done businesses similar to what they're doing. We can connect them to people with funding they may want to talk to."

Boer says on campus, students can run ideas by peers for feedback, a tactic McDowell also used while at Wharton.

"Your classmates and your professors will be able to give you great advice but only if you're open about what you're working on," she says.

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-- Take advantage of funding opportunities: A number of schools provide resources for getting seed money to support startups. At Vanderbilt, a student can apply for $25,000 to fund a new venture.

"We usually get three to four students per year who qualify for this," Boer says.

Carnegie Mellon University has offered student business teams between $5,000 and $10,000 for new companies, says Arthur Boni, a professor at the Tepper School of Business.

In the fall, Texas A&M University will start awarding seed grants to early stage companies, says Richard Lester, executive director of the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship at the Mays Business School.

Every school may not have the budget to financially support new businesses. In these cases, students can turn to incubators such as Y Combinator and TechStars, companies that invest in startups, Boni says.

-- Discuss academic limitations with classmates: Busy students may have to choose between working toward a high grade point average or a successful company. McDowell chose the latter while at Wharton.

"I think I was in the 30th percentile," she says, noting that her less than stellar grades were typical of student entrepreneurs that she knew of.

Her professors were not insulted by her lack of academic achievement. "They still wanted to help you even if you were distracted in their class," she says.

Getting along with her classmates could be more difficult.

"I wasn't terribly concerned about my grades per se but the problem was there's so much group work in business school," she says. "You also have expectations to your team members, and you're working in group projects."

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To avoid conflict, she advises students to be up front with their peers. "You have to make it clear from the beginning that you can only spend so much time on this project," McDowell says.

-- Balance time wisely: Boer recalls an overwhelmed student who juggled going to classes with hiring staff and managing his business.

"That's not easy to do," he says. When students ask him how to balance competing priorities, he pushes them to figure out which matters most.

"How important is your company to you? How important is your academic degree?" he asks them. "Grades don't determine your success in life. The inner fire in your belly determines how successful you will be."

-- Find business partners in class: When it comes to looking for staff, Boer points out that student entrepreneurs can turn to peers.

He says students can start by asking "What am I good at doing?" and then ask themselves, "What things am I not good at doing?" Once weaknesses are identified, "Try to identify classmates who are really good at each one of those things. And when you get through with that process you'll have probably a decent management team," he says.

Even with a strong team, students should be nimble and expect the unexpected.

"Starting a business is not a nice, clean, neat, orderly process," says Boer. "It tends to be very messy, very chaotic, and everyday you're learning something new that may cause you to change direction the next day."

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