Brown University is the hot Ivy-League school these days, thanks in no small part to a list of celebrity kids who have strolled the campus. John F. Kennedy Jr. is a Brown alum, as are George Harrison’s son, Ringo Starr’s stepdaughter, and Prince Feisal of Jordan. But Brown is hot for another reason: In an economy where entrepreneurs are heroes, Brown has turned out some of the top young entrepreneurs in the United States. The founders of CDNow, Motley Fool, and Nantucket Nectars, along with dozens of other startups, all got their degrees from what is fast becoming Startup U.
Why do so many of Brown’s students see green? The curriculum has a lot to do with it. Brown has no universitywide course requirements. (That policy, which is still called the “new curriculum,” began in the 1970s.) Students do have to complete a prescribed course of study within their major, but what they do apart from that is entirely up to them. If they want to take 20 music classes or avoid math altogether, they can.
The move to the new curriculum was meant to inspire students to take risks, to inject more creativity into their lives. Maybe that’s why so many Brown grads are also in entertainment. Lisa Loeb, Duncan Sheik, and NPR’s Ira Glass are a few of the Brown alums who work in music and other media.
Being a business executive, on the other hand, has never been high on the list of goals for Brown’s grads. “It wasn’t seen as very cool,” says Leon Richter, 28, who graduated in 1992. “The sense was that anyone could get a job on Wall Street. Feeding your soul was always considered more important than feeding your wallet.”
Thanks to a class that Richter took, he learned that running his own company could provide that nourishment. Richter had enrolled in one of Professor Barrett Hazeltine’s famous courses. The two most popular are “Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations” and “Managerial Decision Making.” The courses don’t sound sexy, and they’re hard to find: They’re listed under engineering at a school renowned for its liberal-arts education. But it’s impossible to spend time at Brown and not be aware of Hazeltine’s courses.
“Before I ever set foot on campus as a freshman, I was told to seek him out,” says Tom Scott, 33, who cofounded juice maker Nantucket Nectars with a fellow Brown alum. (Nantucket Nectars prints messages on the inside of its bottle caps. One reads, “Professor Hazeltine was one of Tom Scott’s favorite professors at Brown.”)
What makes Hazeltine’s courses special? Using some of Harvard Business School’s best case studies gives his classes a dose of the real world. “The entrepreneurs we read about were ordinary people in extraordinary situations,” Scott says. “That made being an adult seem like it was not that big of a deal.”
And Hazeltine himself, though 67, exudes the unbridled energy of the kids he teaches. If part of entrepreneurial success is maintaining passion and commitment, then Hazeltine is a living example. “He runs up and down the aisles,” says Amy Nye Wolf, 31, who graduated in 1990 and is the founder of altiTUNES Partners, a chain of music stores located in airports and train stations. “He’s interested in hearing your perspective as a consumer and in drawing on your instincts.” Adds Seth Goldberger, 23, who, before graduating from Brown this spring, launched a company called Lauan Records: “I thought that he [Hazeltine] would laugh at my ideas, but he has this amazing ability to make everyone believe in themselves.”
An engineer by training, Hazeltine has spent most of his adult life in the classroom. He delights in exposing students to case studies before they’ve had formal training in finance or operations. “We owe it to the students to show them the exciting parts first,” he says. “Students get more value from thinking through the launch of their own enterprise than from sitting around having professors yell at them about demand curves. Smart young people can accomplish a lot if no one gets in the way.”
Over the years, a wide range of students have become receptive to Hazeltine’s message. “One guy I met took a year off before college to join the circus,” notes Leon Richter. “Another had been working on hunger programs for a year. It’s hard not to be inspired by classmates who are passionate about so many different things.”
During a one-year stay in Buenos Aires before graduating from Brown, Richter cofounded Justice Technology, a telecom firm. This year, his company topped Inc. magazine’s list of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States. “The freedom that Brown gave us fosters an entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “Both at Brown and in business, nobody tells you how to do anything. Some people need instruction manuals. Brown attracts folks who want the challenge of figuring it out for themselves. Our company works the same way.”
Contact Professor Barrett Hazeltine by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sidebar: Startup 101
Professor Barrett Hazeltine is the unofficial chairman of the board for both students and alumni of Brown University who are aspiring entrepreneurs. Here are the lessons that he teaches most often.
Do it now.
“The best time to start a business is when you’re still young. You don’t have a spouse. You don’t have a mortgage. Failure at 40 can be a huge blow; but at 25, you go to the beach for a few days, and it’s all better.”
Don’t worry about experience.
“The need for experience is a moot question now. If you’re starting an Internet company, there just isn’t a common set of principles that you’ll need to spend years learning. But companies like Nantucket Nectars, which is in a mature industry, can succeed too. Experience doesn’t have much advantage anymore.”
“Plan carefully. Figure out as much as you can beforehand: suppliers and distributors to use, customers to target, people to hire. But don’t be afraid to explore other paths if only some — or none — of your initial plan works out. And don’t be afraid to admit that you’ve made a mistake. Then try again by doing something differently.”
Don’t be shy.
“Ask as many people as possible for advice. There’s a guy in Boston who graduated from Brown in the 1930s who still loves talking with people about business. People who are successful, but who are not potential rivals, are often happy to offer advice. And, of course, there are your former professors!”