Opportunity: Entrepreneurial Internships for Entrepreneurs

Posted By: Daniel Barwick NACCE Blog,

There are at least 300 baccalaureate-granting colleges in the United States that have an entrepreneurship major of some type. In the community college arena, NACCE’s data shows that out of the 1,195 public, private, and tribal colleges across the country, 66 percent offer at least one course in entrepreneurship, while 14 percent offer a degree program in the subject. Another 19 percent offer certification in entrepreneurship, while 20 percent have some type of small business development center. Given the number of schools that have entrepreneurship programs of some kind, the scarcity of internship programs in which students work one-on-one with entrepreneurs is surprising.

Currently, many schools offer credit for entrepreneurial activity, and that credit takes a number of forms: a traditional class in which either a group or individual entrepreneur projects are assigned as part of the class; a directed study in which the student proposes an entrepreneurial project and works directly with a faculty member or a committee; or an internship in which the student works for an outside organization.

Internships are particularly rare at community colleges. An internship requires time, something that is inherently in shorter supply for a student seeking a degree of about 60 credit hours. (Or, in the case of a certificate, often substantially less). Additionally, internships are typically higher-level student activities from which students will derive the most benefit if they already have acquired a body of knowledge – that’s why internships typically occur late in the course sequence of a program.

Providing Real Opportunities

But internships at baccalaureate institutions appear to have some common features that present real opportunities for schools to provide impactful experiences for students. In preparation for this blog post, I surveyed 50 institutions with entrepreneurship majors, selected randomly from the entire list of institutions that offer such a major. Some findings:

  • Of those surveyed, 94% of the schools housed their entrepreneurship programs housed either in their business school or run by business faculty
  • Over two-thirds of the programs described themselves as appropriate for students who may wish to start their own business, work in a family-owned business, or work for smaller businesses
  • In practice, a substantial number of enrolled students plan to take over an existing family business, with the second largest group being students who plan to start a business in a specific area and are taking a minor or second major in entrepreneurship to complement the first major
  • Many schools allow the internship requirement to be satisfied through work in the student’s existing family business, if that work is evaluated and approved first.

Although one might think that an internship in entrepreneurship would involve the student working one-on-one with an entrepreneur, I found that in most cases, the internship was indistinguishable from a generic business internship, with the possible exception of an internship in an existing family business. And in those cases, the student seems less likely to be exposed to particularly new ideas or new ways of doing business, since the internship is carried out in the presence of family whom the student has worked with for years.

These issues were not universal. I found some programs that strive very hard to create a personalized, one-on-one internship that was distinct from what the rest of the business majors were experiencing. Those programs tended to be at smaller schools, and those programs tended to be less enmeshed with the business program.

My research suggests that many, if not most, schools are failing to provide truly distinctive entrepreneurship internships for their students. This not only represents a marketing opportunity for the schools that provide quality internships, but it also points the way for existing programs looking for a straightforward way to improve.

An ideal entrepreneurship internship would have the following elements:

  • Some portion of the time spent would be one-on-one with an entrepreneur, focused on the creative process;
  • The entrepreneur’s business or project would be deliberately out of the comfort zone of the student - the idea is not to reinforce the student’s previous experiences but to create new ones; and
  • The entrepreneur needs to fully appreciate that the internship exists primarily for the welfare of the student, and so the student needs to be given meaningful work and responsibilities.

If community colleges were to provide these types of internships, it would be a win-win for the student, the institution, and the entrepreneur.


Dr. Daniel Barwick