CU Denver’s Madhavan Parthasarathy Is Rethinking Entrepreneurship—One Student at a Time

A featured expert at the 5280 Thought Forum, Parthasarathy will explore the link between higher education and vibrant economies.

February 20, 2024

At CU Denver, investing in your education is about more than getting a degree. It is about becoming part of a community that connects the dots between big and small ideas and develops innovative learners that give back. That practice is on display at the Business School’s Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship—the heart of the university’s entrepreneurship offerings, which meet the needs of Colorado’s evolving economy and workforce.   

At its helm is Madhavan Parthasarathy, PhD, a professor of Marketing and Entrepreneurship, and the academic and executive director of the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship. Parthasarathy’s career is dedicated to empowering entrepreneurs to reach their potential, and he does that by rethinking how higher education can meet their needs and creating an ecosystem for learning that lasts long after students receive a degree. This month, he will be a featured panelist at the second annual 5280 Thought Forum, which CU Denver co-founded and hosts, where Colorado’s economy will be in focus as experts discuss small business, the green economy, and biotech.   

We sat down to talk with Parthasarathy to learn more about the Feb. 27 event and how he’s using entrepreneurship to inspire new educational opportunities for CU Denver students.   

Q: The 5280 Thought Forum will bring together some of the state’s leading experts and will be held, right here, on the CU Denver campus at the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship. Why is that important?   

When we think about great entrepreneurial ecosystems, like Silicon Valley, it is critical to have a university right in the midst of the ecosystem. And the university has to be an innovative university. Denver is one of the top three entrepreneurial ecosystems in the country and in the top five or top 10 in the world. And we are the school that has the best entrepreneurship program here….In order for the ecosystem to develop, and become truly number one, we need more interaction between the community and the school.   

Q: To help that happen, one of your priorities has been rethinking what degrees are offered, how courses work, and more. Can you tell us about that?   

I asked, “How can we innovate as an academic program?” For example, after the Great Resignation, there were some people seeking further education to support a career change who had been chief marketing officers, chief technical officers. What if I asked somebody who had been the CFO of a company to take the basic Finance 101 class? I mean, that’s an insult, right? So, I came up with the idea. Let’s do the opposite. Let’s have a conversation with each person and then tailor the degree to what their skills are and where the gaps are. Let’s not require a set of core classes and instead customize the degree for each person.   

Q: But that was just the start, right? How did you work on keeping students motivated?   

Imagine you’re a student and you are pursuing a master’s degree with a minimum of 30 credit hours, that’s 10 classes. Let’s say after eight classes, you say “I need a break. I quit.” What happens is that you’ve paid for eight classes, and you’ve got nothing to show for it. No degree, no paper, nothing.   

I said, “Let’s make it stackable.” What we tell people is, “Hey, take three entrepreneurship classes. Pick the three classes you want. We’ll customize it and after every three classes we will give you a certificate. If you want to continue, you can. But if you want to pause and get a job, we’ll help you make those connections. And if you work for a while and you want to come back, come back, you can take three more classes and so on. You’re getting something along the way.” 

Q: And you’ve opened the doors to real-world experts, right?   

Yes, the other thing we decided to do is have real entrepreneurs—CEOs of companies, founders—jointly teach classes with academics so that students get both academic and experiential knowledge. Plus, the students form networks with these entrepreneurs who are heavily connected in the community. This serves two purposes: The classes are more relevant and since the entrepreneurs are connected with the community, they can help make jobs happen for the students.   

Another thing is that we have is a mentor council with specialty mentors from a variety of industries available to help guide students through the various stages of launching a startup. What happens is that we are contributing to the ecosystem. And then the ecosystem is contributing to education by virtue of all these mentors.   

Q: It seems like there is a strong emphasis on connecting community and making education work for all learners. Why is this important?   

I think we all feel deeply that college education is too expensive, and it’s not accessible. So, facilitating accessibility of education serves multiple purposes. It’s the most fulfilling thing, especially in entrepreneurship, because there are lots of people out there with brilliant ideas, and a lot of passion, who don’t have the basic business skills to make their ideas successful. All they need is a little nudge and a little push. And then you see the results of how you help somebody to achieve greatness.