Peter J. Burns III: Higher Education & Entrepreneurship...An Oxymoron, Or Not?

Higher education....jpeg

I am the first to admit that traditional education and I are like "two ships passing in the night." Secondary School in New Canaan, Connecticut was simply not a priority to me...and my mediocre grades reflected that. I did, however, polish my entrepreneurial skills in a number of ventures and my golf game improved...academic achievements-not so much. lol.

A stint in the U.S. Army as an Infantry soldier, 40 years ago now, followed by a surprising West Point Appointment and attendance at the United States Military Academy Preparatory School started me on a whole new path, academically. I managed to actually win a 4 Year ROTC Scholarship while at USMAPS too and returning my West Point Appointment to a grateful Alternate, I matriculated to the venerable University of Virginia, courtesy of the United States Army.

UVa. was a fabulous place, started in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson and was both an academic powerhouse as well as a bastion of old Southern Aristocracy. The University of Virginia's Law School, was one of the Nation's finest and housed the Judge Advocate General's School, which educated all of the Armed Forces legal branches. I had always favored "The Law" as a potential future profession but my lackluster secondary school performance didn't portend well for that. However, in light of my military fostered academic success so far... that opportunity might actually become a possibility now.

As a 1st year student at Virginia, I was allowed to take the LSATs and aced them. I was permitted to actually join the Officers Club at The JAG School and interacted with assorted Captains, Majors and above who were fellow members. Slowly but surely I was fashioning a potential legal career in the military as a JAG Officer. Alas, that was never to be...

My disinterest for traditional education manifested again with the droll required courses in history, Latin etc. I searched the Registry of Course Curriculum and spied a very interesting course, entitled simply "Entrepreneurship." Despite the fact that the course was open as a highly desired elective for 4th Year students who were enrolled in the prestigious McIntire School of Commerce, I promptly made my way to the office of the professor that taught the course.

I shared my desire to enter into the course of "Entrepreneurship," despite all of the impediments (1st year student, not enrolled in the McIntire School of Commerce -3rd and 4th Year students only) and was initially rebuffed, as I expected. However, I never let little things like rejection dissuade me so the professor offered to let me state my "case" to the class of enrolled students and if accepted by them...I was "in."

My enrollment in McIntire's "Entrepreneurship" class the second semester of my very short college career (1 year) changed my life. My business plan of "moped rentals" created in that class started me on my path of entrepreneurship and the summer following my first year of school yielded a resounding success in the business on my summer home of Nantucket Island. That initial business success sounded the "death knell" of my academic future, I gave back the remaining 3 years on my ROTC Scholarship to a deserving Alternate (just like the former West Point Appointment) and I took a "leave of absence" from UVa...going on 40 years now. :)

I moved my little fleet of rental mopeds from Nantucket to Sanibel Island, Florida, which became my Winter home and the 2nd of over 100 eventual rental locales for my burgeoning recreational rental "empire." My former professor invited me back to guest lecture each Semester he taught "Entrepreneurship," until he retired 10 years later. I was hooked on "entrepreneurship education" and vowed to continue on this path.

Along the way, I re-entered academia of a sort and was proud to be the youngest ever selected (since 1972) into Harvard Business School's Owners and Presidents Management Program (OPM). After a divorce and re-location from Florida to Arizona, I enrolled my youngest daughter in ASU's Barrett Honors College, met the Dean and convinced him to let me teach as a pro bono Adjunct teaching a one hour course that I appropriately named "Ready, Fire, Aim." Nineteen students produced 13 business plans and I launched 5 companies, donating thousands of dollars to a scholarship fund at Barrett Honors from one of the funded businesses.

The second semester found me invited back and the curriculum expanded to 4 classes with 94 students. Our little entrepreneurial movement as ASU generated a lot of positive press as well as the ire of the entrenched small-minded academics at ASU's Business School, including that of the pompous president of the university. I was "uninvited" to return for a second year of teaching at Barrett's but by that time, another local university, Grand Canyon University, invited me to bring my entire program over to them, where we fashioned and launched the first accredited College of Entrepreneurship in the United States. A scant 6 months later, GCU's CoE was named the 2nd best entrepreneurial program in the US by FORTUNE SMALL BUSINESS MAGAZINE.

My erstwhile dreams of merging true entrepreneurship with academia abruptly ended when Grand Canyon University became the only IPO in 2009 and left me and my Program at the altar, merging the CoE into their traditional Business School. They simply didn't need the great press I had generated any longer. Oh well...

In 2013, I entered service with a well known NGO where for 6 months, I became their de facto Entrepreneur-In-Residence in Ethiopia. I had the distinct pleasure of guest lecturing at two Ethiopian universities to classrooms full of budding entrepreneurs. That experience sparked my desire to return in some manner to "entrepreneurship education" and knowing myself pretty well by now...I will certainly figure out how to do so again in these next chapters of my life. :)

Posted on March 21, 2018 .