Many of today's young Canadian risk-takers are mobile, Internet-savvy and bubbling with ideas to start their own ventures, but lack the business skills to launch a successful company. To serve this emerging niche market, Canadian business schools are rethinking the delivery of their MBA-level programs. Some now offer special streams for entrepreneurship or embed it as a core subject, while others tailor their programs to sectors known for their concentration of small business and start-up enterprises, such as retail, technology and tourism.

The programs share a common goal to teach students how to transform ideas into profit. "Entrepreneurial education has become legitimized as a very serious academic pursuit, whereas 10 years ago universities could not spell the word," says Steve Farlow, executive director of Wilfrid Laurier University's Schlegel Centre for Entrepreneurship in Waterloo, Ont. WHY The changing economy and a new generation's outlook on work are fueling a growth of interest in entrepreneur-focused MBAs. Last year, the number of corporate establishments in Canada grew to 2.4 million, with 58.4 per cent of them firms of fewer than five employees. Significant engines of growth and employment, these small enterprises accounted for 34.5 per cent of Canada's GDP in the third quarter of 2007, according to Industry Canada. Meanwhile, independent-minded young people are redefining notions of work and career, with less inclination than their parents to define success as joining a big company for life. "Students are saying 'I don't know that I want to be in a big, hierarchical organization,' " says Larry Wynant, associate dean of programs at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont.

WHO IS THIS FOR?
The student profile ranges from mid-career professionals retooling their careers to undergraduates with only a couple of years of work experience and little background in finance, marketing or product development. Enrolments range between 20 and 60 students a year, depending on the institution. The University of Waterloo does not have a graduate business school but offers a Master of Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology (MBET) as an alternative to the traditional MBA. Over the past five years, the class profile has changed dramatically, says Paul Doherty, director of the Centre for Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology. From an initial focus on engineers, his centre's intake has broadened to include students, mostly in their mid-20s, from computer science, life sciences and commerce. "We can't keep up with the growth," he says, with a class of 60 students expected this fall, triple the number five years ago.

By contrast, the University of Guelph's MBA program caters to an older crowd who already own and operate a business but want to step it up to the next level. "In our experience, there are a lot of successful small businesses who want to be better at what they do, so they are willing to give up some time and money to go back to school and enhance their skills," says Dave Sparling, associate dean of research and graduate studies at Guelph, which accepts between 20 and 30 students a year for its on-line MBA in agri-business, hospitality and tourism. At Ivey, which caters to the development of top corporate managers, a revamped MBA program now integrates entrepreneurship into the core curriculum. Since the redesigned format in 2006, student interest in starting new ventures has jumped sharply, says Ivey's Dr. Wynant. Last year, about a dozen students out of a class of 75 launched their own business after graduation, about one-third more than two years ago.

CAN IT BE TAUGHT?
A debate still simmers over whether an entrepreneur is born or made, but students and professors seem to agree that academic training and an appetite for risk go hand-in-hand. "You can learn all these things, but if you are not tolerant of risk you are not going to start a business," says Nathan Weathington, 34, a graduate of University of Victoria, with an MBA that includes a concentrated three-month stream in entrepreneurship and innovation. "The program gets you away from dreaming about doing it to the how-do-you-do-it," he adds. Based in Victoria, Mr. Weathington has helped launch two new ventures: a high-fashion baby-sling business (momodesignhouse.com) and a fast-growing free classified Internet site (usedeverywhere.com) since graduating. WHAT THEY TEACH Beyond the fundamentals of finance, marketing and managerial skills, entrepreneurship-focused MBAs (or their equivalent) offer a mix of theory and practice in how to start a business venture and bring it to commercial success. The programs vary widely – several offer students a chance to launch a business while still in school – but all cover the natural progression of a venture from the initial search for an idea to an assessment of its chance of success (risk management), the mechanics of start-up (product development, marketing, intellectual property, access to capital) and on-going operations (finance, management, human resources). At the University of Victoria, for example, students were given 48 hours to trade a paper clip for something of more value (one student bartered for a TV/DVD) to teach them how to make a deal. Increasingly, business schools are recruiting successful entrepreneurs as course advisers and student mentors.

WHAT STUDENTS GAIN
They learn the theory and practice of how to launch a new business. Martin Vaz-Jones, of Markham, Ont., started his own lawn-cutting service at age 12 but did not seriously consider a business career until after graduating from Queen's University in 2005 in life sciences. "I always enjoyed the entrepreneurial aspect but did not have any formal education in that direction," says Mr. Vaz-Jones, 25, who will graduate later this year from Wilfrid Laurier University's Schlegel School of Business. He chose WLU for its location in the "technology triangle" of Waterloo, Ont., and the course content. The school offers a specialty stream in entrepreneurship and innovation and, for a select few like Mr. Vaz-Jones, entry into an "accelerator" program for students to launch their own businesses before graduation. Over two semesters, students receive coaching from professors and successful innovators on how to take an idea – in his case a 24-hour professional editing service – to the stage of product launch.