This article was originally posted by the Lerner School of Business and Economics as part of their "Seeing Opportunity" series.
As he sat in class listening to the lecture, Nicholai Williamson was taken aback. The native of Jamaica had been drawn to the University of Delaware in part because of the strength of its entrepreneurship programs, and now his entrepreneurship instructor was saying that the sooner he failed, the better.
Williamson’s initial reaction: “Did I just pay all this money to be told that?”
He quickly came to see the wisdom in this lesson, though, and is now deep in a project to launch a new venture, using his university experience as a lab where failure is an opportunity to learn and hone an idea.
Williamson’s training comes courtesy of UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and Horn Entrepreneurship, which serves as the creative engine for entrepreneurship throughout the university, and which for the fifth year in a row has propelled UD to a ranking among the top entrepreneurship universities in the nation. In the Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine’s Top 50 list for 2024, UD moved up to 31st from last year’s ranking of No. 33, placing higher than other regional schools like Penn State and Temple. The ranking takes into account a wide range of factors, including courses offered in entrepreneurship, enrollment, faculty resources dedicated to the effort, mentoring and other opportunities outside class, and the success of alumni ventures.
“At the University of Delaware and at the Lerner College, Horn Entrepreneurship isn’t just a program, it’s a catalyst for innovation,” said Oliver Yao, dean of UD’s Lerner College. “The Horn Entrepreneurship programs stand out because of the rigorous curriculum, dedicated faculty and staff and outstanding students.”
Those programs drew Williamson’s attention. The entrepreneurship programs were part of what prompted him to choose UD over Rutgers, Penn State or other schools he had been accepted to, he said. He’s studying entrepreneurship and management, with a minor in professional selling and sales management, and plans to graduate in 2025.
Horn Entrepreneurship offers an entrepreneurship major; several minors, including integrated design and social innovation and entrepreneurship; and cross disciplinary certificates throughout all the colleges in the University. Last year, more than 1,700 students from 100 different majors participated in Horn’s programs, according to Dan Freeman, associate professor of marketing and Horn’s founding director.
The range of options and Horn’s commitment to providing relevant and accessible offerings to all students are part of UD’s success in the rankings, Freeman said. “We offer a wide array of courses, we engage a large number of students inside the business school, but even more importantly, from across campus and lots of different majors. All UD students are also invited to participate in Horn’s robust new venture development programming that engages more than 100 mentors, and our students realize a fair amount of new venture success.”
The goal is to develop a way of thinking, Freeman emphasizes. Entrepreneurship, as UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship defines it, isn’t about starting new businesses, and it’s definitely not a synonym for business ownership.
“It’s really about helping them to develop the mindset, skill sets and means … to be able to be a creative problem solver, to bring people together around a new idea or a vision for how you can make a positive impact in the world,” Freeman said. New ventures are a desirable byproduct, he added, “but it could just as easily be a new social venture, a new policy, or a new process.”
Innovation means coming up with something new and valuable. Adding an economically sustainable model for carrying that out is what makes it entrepreneurship, Freeman explained.
In Williamson’s case, the innovation is an idea for an app called BonaFyde that aims to help international students connect with universities. Now he’s working on the sustainable part of the vision.
His idea got a big boost in November when Williamson reached the finals of Hen Hatch, UD’s premier startup funding competition. Judges sort through an initial two rounds of ideas and select finalists, who then make a pitch in front of an audience for a share of funding and other business support. Williamson impressed them enough to earn a sizable share of the funding.
“It was a great experience,” he said.
BonaFyde aims to help international students figure out where they want to invest the next four years of their lives, Williamson explained. The app, which is still in development, is intended to provide information about navigating life beyond academics. He’s thinking big — the vision for BonaFyde is that eventually any prospective student, anywhere in the world, can use information on the app to choose a school that will be a good fit both inside class and out.
It’s inspired in part by his own experience with culture shock and not knowing how to plug in after moving from Jamaica. Williamson also interviewed many international students as part of development, to learn from their experiences and see if they had the same pain points.
Through Horn, he’s learned some basics of how to help these kinds of ventures succeed — like identifying a problem, researching how many people have that problem and what’s involved, and determining “am I going to build something that is actually going to solve a problem in the way that people want it to be solved?”
His personal goal is autonomy, Williamson said, the opportunity to shape his own future.
Other entrepreneurs have already walked this path with support from Horn, including Mac Macleod, founder of Carvertise, Maya Nazareth, developer of Alchemize Fightwear, and Joel Amin and Bryce Fender, co-founders of Wilminvest.
Not everyone will become a founder or CEO. But, Freeman said, “They will be positioned to be value creators and leaders in any organizational context … it’s really about imagining new possibilities.”
The world is changing very rapidly, Freeman said, and businesses have to innovate. “Every organization needs to be getting better at what they do, and getting better at serving the needs of their customers.”
“The program provides hands-on experiences through real-world projects, which allows students to apply theoretical knowledge, develop problem-solving skills, and understand the complexities of the business world,” Yao said. “Upon graduation, students are equipped with the skills to navigate the dynamic landscape of entrepreneurship.”
Entrepreneurship education is unique in training for creative problem solving, Freeman said, helping students feel a sense of agency and also responsibility. They become “someone who doesn’t just notice problems and complain about them, but actually takes action and knows how to go through a process to generate potentially promising solutions.”