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Sunday, December 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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College grows entrepreneurs

Knight Ridder Newspapers

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The University of St. Thomas is trying to give the creator of the next Microsoft or Best Buy a leg up on competitors with its new Schulze School of Entrepreneurship.

The university's $22 million school in downtown Minneapolis not only aims to lecture to students about entrepreneurship, but also to give them virtually all the tools they'll need to start a business.

There's state-of-the-art technology, fully outfitted offices that student-run businesses can use as their bases and even some potential startup funds for select businesses.

But in a field loaded with stories about entrepreneurs who started with next to nothing, can you actually teach such persistence and savvy in a university setting?

Christopher Puto, dean of the College of Business, believes so. "Our approach is going to be very similar to the way they teach physicians in medical school."

He noted that thousands of years ago, the first doctors learned the hard way — through trial and error. But they passed their lessons down, and over the years a knowledge base was built.

The school's namesake is Richard Schulze, founder of Best Buy.

Budding entrepreneurs will have access to the latest technology. The school worked with Sun Microsystems to make St. Thomas the first U.S. business school to be designated a Sun "Center of Excellence."

That means Schulze Hall is outfitted with a wide range of technology from Sun and its partners, including a wireless computer network that serves the building, an Internet phone system, classroom seating that's hard-wired for laptop computers and a computer lab.

"We wanted Schulze Hall to be a technology showcase," said William Raffield, senior associate dean of the business college, as he demonstrated one of the touch-screen multimedia systems available in each classroom.

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While the facilities are sleek and modern, successful entrepreneurs are often romanticized for their modest beginnings.

Earl Bakken launched Medtronic out of a garage in Minneapolis. Jeff Bezos worked out of a two-bedroom house in Seattle when he started Amazon.com, and also used the garage. Schulze's Best Buy traces its roots to a Sound of Music store in St. Paul in 1966.

A college education doesn't always find room on an entrepreneur's "must-do" list. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard in his junior year to concentrate on a fledgling enterprise called Microsoft. Schulze grew up near St. Thomas and has a fondness for the school, as seen by his gifts, but he never went to college.

Schulze decided to support the idea for an entrepreneurship school in part because of his experiences starting Best Buy, Puto said.

"His philosophy is he learned a lot through trial and error, and if any of that could be reduced in an academic setting, it would have accelerated his ability to move forward," Puto said.

While students at the Schulze School will learn the fundamentals of business and finance, they'll also have the chance to do the work of starting their own business.

The William C. Norris Institute, which became part of the university in 2001, has fostered business development for years and will offer some financial backing for certain student-run businesses.

"We'll have courses that actually involve starting a business. We'll have access to some funding for people who want startup loans," Puto said. "It really will depend on the viability of the project."

Damian Novak, who will graduate from the Schulze School in the spring with an MBA focused on entrepreneurship, is the type of student the school wants to nurture. A couple of years ago, Novak launched Top Swing Leasing, a business that leases golf clubs and equipment to individuals and golf courses.

Instead of buying a high-quality set of new clubs for $1,000, golfers can lease them for about $50 per month.

"It's geared toward people who constantly want new clubs," said Novak. For golf courses, he lines up leasing deals to provide them rental equipment.

Top Swing opened its own off-campus office more than a year ago, before Schulze Hall opened and before seed money was potentially available through the school.

And though Novak's business is further along than those of most of his fellow students, he still calls up his former professors for advice.

Novak, 29, enrolled at the business school after earning an electrical-engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and working for three years at a venture-capital firm. He said his classroom experience at St. Thomas has helped him navigate the obstacles of a startup business.

"I'd take these classes and I'd be going through the identical challenge in my business," he said. For example, the school trained him to pay more attention to laying out anticipated costs and keeping them under control, he said.

St. Thomas began offering a bachelor's degree in entrepreneurship in 1986, and the field's popularity has been on a steady rise.

The St. Thomas program competes with at least three other area colleges or universities that have programs for entrepreneurs. The schools say they're simply acting like entrepreneurs, responding to the market's demand.

St. Thomas has not so far made it to the top rankings of business schools, as listed by BusinessWeek or U.S. News & World Report. But its entrepreneurship program has won notice from Entrepreneur magazine, which put it comfortably in the top 50 such programs.

St. Thomas' role as a private, Catholic school sets it apart in at least one sense, Puto said.

"We don't make anyone commit to a religion, but we do provide a sense of connecting with your own spirituality and asking, 'How do I understand the role of ethics in my venture?' " Puto said.

"How do you identify when you're in an ethical dilemma, and what do you do with it? It's not obvious to me what other schools can do with that."

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