Future Entrepreneurs Need to Learn Outside the Classroom

Colorado Impact Fund co-founder Ryan Heckman knows what it feels like to attend college – but not quite fit in.

A small-town guy from Granby, Heckman was a former Olympic skier, and a little older than most undergraduates, when he attended the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the mid-to- late 90s. Eager to learn, he was perplexed that few of his fellow students shared his hunger for higher education.

“For the first time in my life, I felt like a nerd,” Heckman told me recently. “I had more in common with the adult learners.”

Heckman, however, finally found his right educational environment when he participated in two internships with Boulder startups, one with a local technology storage company doing slide presentations in preparation for an I.P.O., the other with the CFO of a biotech researching artificial blood products.

“Until then, I didn’t really find education all that enriching,” he said. “Sure, I had some great professors and checked the box, but still … .”

Mature overachievers aren’t the only ones sometimes ill-suited to the classroom. “One shoe does not fit all,” Heckman said. “Some of the smartest people I know got horrible grades, and that precluded them from getting into college and even if they got into college, they dropped out. It’s sad. They wanted to learn but couldn’t in the traditional way.”

Heckman’s internship experiences laid the groundwork for his career. For the last 20 years, he has been a private equity investor and business owner. He also is a co-founder of the Colorado Impact Fund in Denver, which provides growth capital to emerging companies and entrepreneurs in the state.

The internships also showed him the importance of real-world learning, in particular for students, who, like him had an entrepreneurial mindset. “You can’t just have a bulletin board with jobs posted on it, either,” Heckman said. “Invite local companies to take on interns. They should feel a sense of purpose by doing so and celebrated for making an investment in our future workforce.

“How cool would it be if the private sector was pulling on talent, advising on curriculum and then hiring interns that could someday be employees or the next great business creator? I would have died for that opportunity when I was in college,” says Heckman.

Entrepreneurial education can help pre-college, even pre-high school, students, too.

This piece originally appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera. To read the entire piece, click here.

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Scott Laband