Dreamers and Doers: Many Innovators Get Started as Undergrads

Nicolas Naranjo knocked on Evan Kimbrell’s door at midnight.

At other colleges, this might have been a prelude to a fraternity prank or an invitation to help float the keg at the end of a party. But Mr. Naranjo, who had just arrived in the United States from his native Colombia some weeks before, wanted to talk about starting a business. He had an idea about a hop-on, hop-off bus service for college tours around the Boston area. Mr. Kimbrell had tried to start a bus company the previous year and knew the pitfalls — and was happy for the break from his studies to talk business.

This is life in the E-Tower at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. Babson focuses on business, and E-Tower focuses, even more tightly, on entrepreneurship. The residents of E-Tower hash out new business plans at Monday night meetings, and they talk shop throughout the day and night.

“We’re really a dorm of dreamers and doers,” says Prinya Kovitchindachai, who is hoping to market a vile-tasting pill, imported from Thailand, that he touts as a hangover treatment. “College students are the largest group of binge drinkers,” he says, quietly gleeful at the prospect of such a large market so close at hand. Friends have helped him bone up on the basics of international shipping, of securing shelf space and — in a consultation with a neighbor who was wearing a towel and still dripping from the shower — of creating Web sites.

“Any school can teach entrepreneurship,” he says, “but at Babson, we live entrepreneurship.”

Now, let’s not get carried away: as a reporter and as a parent, I find myself on plenty of college campuses these days, and many of the students I meet are indistinguishable from the dull-eyed slackers I went to college with (when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and Pluto was still a planet). But then there are those who have this … THING, this go-getting excitement to start something, make something. They want money, sure. But the overwhelming desire seems to be to carve out something of their own.

Today’s students have grown up hearing more about Bill Gates than F.D.R., and they live in a world where startling innovations are commonplace. The current crop of 18-year-olds, after all, were 8 when Google was founded by two students at Stanford; Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004 while he was at Harvard and they were entering high school. Having “grown up digital” (to borrow the title of Don Tapscott’s recent book on the Net Generation), they are impatient to get on with life.

“They’re great collaborators, with friends, online, at work,” Mr. Tapscott wrote. “They thrive on speed. They love to innovate.”

The easiest way to find kids like these is to check in on entrepreneurship education, in which colleges and universities try to prepare their students to recognize opportunities and seize them.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, the idea of entrepreneurship might bring up the Memo Minder, the lame invention by the “Future Enterpriser” played by Bronson Pinchot in “Risky Business.”

Reader, you date yourself: that was 1983. In the intervening decades, Tom Cruise has grown up and entrepreneurship programs have boomed.

A report issued last year by the Kauffman Foundation, which finances programs to promote innovation on campuses, noted that more than 5,000 entrepreneurship programs are offered on two- and four-year campuses — up from just 250 courses in 1985. Full-scale majors, minors or certificates in entrepreneurship have leaped from 104 in 1975 to more than 500 in 2006. Since 2003, the Kauffman Foundation has given nearly $50 million to 19 colleges and universities to build campus programs.

Lesa Mitchell, a Kauffman vice president, says that the foundation is extending the reach of its academic gospel, which used to be found almost exclusively in business schools.