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Entrepreneur teaches lessons in e-commerce

By Jerry Gleeson
COPYRIGHT 2000 The Journal News. All rights reserved.
Publication date: 4/24/2000

Michael Drapkin, the new chairman of an e-commerce program at Columbia University, hasn't got a framed doctorate on his wall.

What he does have is a black Porsche in his driveway in Monsey and a red-and-blue macaw squawking on a perch in his home office, arguably credentials of success in the field of information technology.

Drapkin, 43, has the happy manner of a man who enjoys his work. Tall, with a short graying beard and a broad smile, he started his own consulting company a year ago, offering advice in the field of Web business.

Last fall he began doing the same as an instructor in a course for a new curriculum at Columbia's Continuing Education department, the Advanced IT Management Program. With Drapkin's practical experience in the workplace and his zest for his subject, his chairman at the university thought that he would be an ideal fit for a new approach to business education.

"Certainly he has been very effective in the classroom," said Arthur Langer, Columbia's chairman of faculty and curricular development for technology programs and a Rockland County neighbor of Drapkin's. "If you're enthusiastic in the classroom, people come out enthusiastic."

Drapkin sees this period as one that people will look back upon as a watershed in the way business is done.

"Everyone who's good is going into dot-coms because there's a gold rush going on," he said. "The question is, what do you really have to offer, what is the asset that's of real value?"

Three days a week he heads into Manhattan to discuss those issues with his students.

The AITM program is a two-year certificate program aimed at students who are coping with the hurly-burly of information technology. According to the research company Standish Group International Inc., 46 percent of information technology projects in 1998 were over budget and overdue, and 28 percent failed.

AITM's students, all with undergraduate degrees and jobs in information technology, have a range of careers. Students include people in their 20s who are moving into management tracks as well as the middle-aged who feel dissatisfied in their jobs or have hit a plateau at their company.

Unlike MBA degree programs, some of which require full-time study, the certificate program is aimed at working professionals grappling with day-to-day challenges. More than 40 people have enrolled, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s.

"It's almost like a mentoring concept," Langer said. "What we are producing are people who can hit the ground running."

Langer hired Drapkin last summer after inviting him over to his home in New City for a kitchen interview. Drapkin had been recommended to the program by a former professional colleague who was teaching there. This summer Drapkin will begin teaching a class focusing on e-commerce.

Drapkin doesn't have a buttoned-down business background. In college he studied music, and eventually landed a job as a clarinet player in the Honolulu Symphony. He wrote computer programs as a sideline, but embraced it after deciding he was "too much of a maverick" to sit in an orchestra pit following a conductor.

In the early 1990s, after his wife gave birth to twins, he joined Lehman Bros. as an information technology project manager and helped design its first data "warehouse" for staff researchers. He left Lehman in 1997 and worked as a technologist for the Web agencies Razorfish and Avalanche before forming Drapkin Technology a year ago.

Business models are changing, Drapkin said. Even the assumption that people need a telephone company to do business is falling by the wayside as the Internet provides new communication choices.

But fundamentals still apply, he said. To succeed in business, people still need financing, a strong management team and practical assets to market. Ideas, he said, are cheap.

They still have a place in the classroom, however. Instead of final exams, Drapkin asks his students to design a business plan for a Web project. It's a concept that his business-minded students take to heart.

One student, fearing that some of the business plans might be good enough to market, actually suggested they all sign a non-disclosure agreement.

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