Flying High at Babson: Len Schlesinger Wants to Create the Equivalent of the Airline Industry’s Star Alliance for Teaching Entrepreneurship

Len Schlesinger wryly refers to himself as president of the finest business school between Route 128 and I-495. And indeed, Wellesley, MA-based Babson College is, for many folks around Boston (and elsewhere), often over-shadowed by Hub institutions I don’t need to name.

Yet Babson is also one of the country’s top business schools. I’m not going to cite all the high rankings it gets from places that track B-school programs, because I don’t believe in such metrics. More to the point, Babson has a first-rate faculty, and we here at Xconomy seem to be writing increasingly about its graduates. Off the top of my head, I can reel off Jason Jacobs, who founded FitnessKeeper, maker of a highly popular run-tracking application for the Apple iPhone 3G called RunKeeper; Rush Hambleton, who founded Canditto, a Cambridge-based service that rents out photo-sharing kiosks; and Matt Lauzon and Jason Reuben, who launched Paragon Lake (the subject of a previous X Factor column), which is out to revolutionize jewelry design and sales, when they were mere undergrads at Babson.

This kind of evidence, not rankings, is what caught my attention. So I was pleased to be able to visit recently with the dynamic Schlesinger, who took Babson’s reins in July 2008 and wasted no time trying to lift the college’s profile.

The Babson president has a unique academic and business background that includes some 20 years at Harvard Business School and eight years as a top executive at Limited Brands, his most recent position before coming to Babson (full bio here). And he says the combination of business and academic experience gave him three sets of skills that serve him well in his new job. First, thanks to his development work at Harvard and, later, Brown University, he knows how to raise money. Second, he has been able to bring the perspective of a business executive to the management of Babson, which has helped shape his plan to strike partnerships with universities around the world (more on this below). And third, he is intimately familiar with the ways of academia, which has helped him understand the process of getting buy-in from Babson faculty.

Now, Schlesinger is an energetic and thought-provoking speaker—and he can be hard to keep up with when taking notes. (If you want to see what I’m talking about, check out this YouTube spot.)

What follows is a much-condensed overview of Schlesinger’s rapid-fire comments on innovation and entrepreneurship, and his ambitions for Babson, which was founded in 1919 as the Babson Institute (it became Babson College in 1959) and is now home to some 1,900 undergraduate and 1,600 graduate students.

1) Entrepreneurship rules—and it can be taught.

On this point, Schlesinger quotes or paraphrases the Bangladeshi economist and microlending pioneer Muhammad Yunus: “We’re all entrepreneurs, only too few of us get to practice it.”

Based on academic work at Babson and other institutions, Schlesinger believes that the principles and practice of entrepreneurship are “documentable, codifiable, and consequently teachable to anybody.” That is a tremendous opportunity for Babson, he says. “This is our time…and the world can benefit enormously from a much more expansive diffusion of what it is that we do.”

2) The underlying assumptions of most business plans, such as a skilled, abundant labor market, cheap energy, and easy access to credit, are things of the past. Outcome measures for businesses must be extended beyond the traditional profit and loss to embrace three categories of measures related to “people, planet and profit.

“The last year has just been spectacular in terms of demonstrating the limitation of the operating model that most businesses and most communities operate under,” Schlesinger says. “We need … Next Page »

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