TAMPA — Allen Clary always knew he wanted to chart his own destiny.
But after graduating from the University of Florida in 1994 with a degree in engineering — and a young family to support — he did what his classmates did and went to work for someone else.
He switched careers at the height of the tech boom in the late '90s and went to work for a Fortune 500 company but yearned for more independence. Finally, in 2001, he began working on a master's in business administration at the University of South Florida with a focus on entrepreneurship.
In September, he launched Jibidee, an online site where subscribers can inventory everything from grocery lists to vacation ideas. Clary, 39, credits USF's Center for Entrepreneurship with jump-starting his dream of revolutionizing the way people keep track of their lives.
"The entrepreneurship program more than anything else offered support," said Clary, who completed the program in 2003. "It helped me solidify my vision of what entrepreneurship would be for me."
Despite economic downturns, entrepreneurship programs have blossomed on campuses across the country as more business schools are realizing students like Clary want to work for themselves.
According to the Kauffman Foundation, the world's largest organization devoted to entrepreneurship, more than 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities — about two-thirds of the total — now offer at least one course in entrepreneurship, compared with 300 only 20 years ago.
Business analysts attribute the growth to the fact that technology affords today's graduates the opportunity to start a business with much less capital and manpower than before.
But Chris Verlander, senior vice president of corporate development for Associated Industries of Florida, said there's more to it than that.
"You ask young people today, 'Do you want to go to work for TECO?' and they say, 'Heavens no, I want to control my own destiny,' " Verlander said. "There's risk in starting your own business, but maybe not as much as there is in going with a giant entity and three years later being let go because the company decided to downsize."
USF launched its Center for Entrepreneurship in 2002 after decades of offering entrepreneurship courses within its traditional MBA program. It was recognized by the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship three consecutive years beginning in 2004.
Last year, the Princeton Review ranked it No. 9 in the nation after surveying entrepreneurial offerings from more than 2,300 undergraduate and business schools. In September, the Review named it No. 5.
What makes USF's program different, says director Michael W. Fountain, is the cross-discipline involvement of the university's colleges of business, engineering and medicine.
"The deans of those colleges came together and said, 'We have all these resources,' " Fountain said. "They asked, 'How can we use those resources to educate and train individuals who will become the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders?' "
USF students enter the entrepreneurship program from all areas of undergraduate study and take courses in opportunity recognition, technology and market assessment, and new venture financing. The idea is for students to create business plans stellar enough to interest venture capitalists so they don't have to rely on loans for their startups.
Among the more than 30 businesses launched by recent graduates is a health and fitness center, a bath and skin care line, and an independent record label.
All are important to the regional economy, Fountain said, since roots for home-grown businesses run deeper than transplanted ones and are better able to weather adverse economic conditions.
That's something center graduate Jonathan Salem is counting on as he gets ready to launch his second business.
Salem, 49, introduced mobile rock climbing to the Tampa Bay area about 10 years ago. When he got the idea for Climbathon, a fundraising opportunity for school PTAs, the USF anthropology undergraduate sensed he needed a better grounding in systems organization and financing.
He enrolled in the Center for Entrepreneurship in 2006 and took advantage of the program's networking and mentoring opportunities.
"I was shocked as I saw the transformation in my thinking," said Salem, who already was earning a six-figure income. "Going through the entrepreneur program taught me a lot of things about the business I'm already running."
But there's more to the program than starting new businesses, USF officials say. The program also teaches students how to strengthen the performance of existing companies, a talent that makes them attractive hires.
Kurt Long, a senior vice president at FairWarning, a St. Petersburg health care information security company, says he prefers USF graduates to the MBAs he's hired from Harvard.
"They have the discipline and the business knowledge of the classical MBA, but they're willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work," said Long, who has hired five center grads. "They're amazingly good."
While he's thrilled with his graduates' success, center director Fountain emphasizes an aspect of the program that goes beyond the tangible: the program's ability to instill in students a sense of social responsibility.
Rebecca Puig, a fourth-generation Tampa native in her first semester of the program, already has embraced that philosophy. Puig, 48, hopes to become a consultant to minority business owners, providing them with resources and services to help them improve their bottom line.
"I want to take what I'm learning from the program and apply it either on a pro bono basis or for a small percentage based on their revenue," Puig said. "It's about more than money. I want to give back to the community."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.