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Laid-back school looks to inspire entrepreneurs

Hampshire College in Amherst, which opened in 1970, is a liberal arts school known for its unstructured approach to higher education.

Amanda Schwengel/Hampshire College

Hampshire College in Amherst, which opened in 1970, is a liberal arts school known for its unstructured approach to higher education.

With no grades or majors, Hampshire College, the Amherst institution with an alternative approach to higher education, seems an unlikely breeding ground for aspiring capitalists.

But last week, the college announced the creation of a $1 million fund to encourage the “animal spirits” of would-be entrepreneurs among students and recent graduates. It’s called the Seed Fund for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and the college will allocate $200,000 a year over five years to fund ideas that may lead to successful ventures. The fund will be managed by a small group of students, who will decide which business pitches deserve financing.

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“There’s no reason not to embrace entrepreneurship,” said Zilong Wang, who graduated from Hampshire in May, after creating a task force to examine creating a center for entrepreneurship at the school of 1,400 undergraduates. “With these structured resources, students will be empowered to take action.”

The $1 million fund is the gift of a foundation run by Michael Vlock, a venture capitalist and 1975 graduate of Hampshire, and his wife, Karen Pritzker, a member of the Pritzker family of Chicago, one the nation’s wealthiest families.

“Hampshire was a place that attracted independent thinking and potentially very entrepreneurial thinkers,” Vlock said. The fund, he added, will help students pursue their business ideas “without any substantive interference from administration and faculty, but with their support.”

Liberal arts colleges across the country are making an effort to incorporate entrepreneurship into their curriculums and culture, adding classes, making grants, and establishing centers, said Wendy Torrance, entrepreneurship director at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a foundation based in Kansas City, Mo. Oberlin College in Ohio, for example, created an entrepreneurship center to fund new student ventures and summer internships.

“These schools are taking on entrepreneurship and defining it in a way that makes sense on their campus,” she said. “It’s not as obvious as it might be on a campus with a business school.”

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Hampshire’s seed funding is still in its planning stages. The task force created by Wang last spring will select a panel of student judges who will decide which start-ups get funding.

Hampshire College was ranked number 20 in Forbes’ 2012 list of the “Most Entrepreneurial Colleges.”

Amanda Schwengel/Hampshire College

Hampshire College was ranked number 20 in Forbes’ 2012 list of the “Most Entrepreneurial Colleges.”

A request for students and recent alumni to propose ventures for financing will go out in December, with judging taking place through February, and final awards in March.

There’s no set number as to how many proposals will be funded, although Vlock estimated it could range from one to four per year.

While the school’s laid-back reputation might suggest otherwise, entrepreneurial thinking is ingrained in Hampshire’s culture, said Shirish Bhattarai, a junior and member of the entrepreneurship task force.

Students design their own courses of study and concentrations. Bhattarai, for example, created a concentration in development and entrepreneurship. They write proposals to professors for classes, and spend their final year immersed in an independent project, judged by a panel of faculty members.

“Hampshire is almost designed to support entrepreneurial students,” he said.

In fact, the school was ranked number 20 in Forbes’ 2012 “Most Entrepreneurial Colleges” list. Hampshire’s more successful business graduates include Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm yogurt, and Stephen McDonnell, who started the organic meat company Applegate Farms.

Jeffrey Wolfson, Hampshire’s development director, said the school connected with Vlock after McDonnell brought him to a meeting about student entrepreneurship. Vlock took interest in what the students were doing and worked with the school to create the seed fund.

“There’s a number of students who have been working on computer games, cellphone apps, and a number of students working on various [other projects, including] a drone-like, pilotless vehicle equipped with a camera,” he said.

Vlock said he recognized the students’ idealism might lead them to favor nonprofit ventures addressing social problems, but he hoped they would pursue money-making businesses that can transform society. “What a story if someone came up with the next Facebook,” he said.

Wang, who works for a consulting firm in San Francisco, said he believes the seed fund will provide the support students need to turn their ideas for changing the world into something tangible.

Through interdisciplinary learning, Wang said, Hampshire students think more broadly than some business-track counterparts might when it comes to solving problems and adopting new approaches.

“In the context of a liberal arts college, [entrepreneurship] takes on a very different meaning than what it means at a business school,” he said. “We’re doing things and doing them differently — we’re not looking to open a pizza shop.”

Gail Waterhouse can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gailwaterhouse.

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