Entrepreneur

Can We Really Teach Entrepreneurship At College?

Schooling and entrepreneurship can seem paradoxical. One teaches you to stay in line, one requires you to stand out. One caters for the slowest moving, one benefits the fastest paced. One looks at what has been, one imagines what could be.

Many successful entrepreneurs did badly at school or dropped out of college. The education system didn’t suit them or didn’t know how to handle them. Many college graduates move straight into a graduate job and stay in employment until retiring in their sixties or seventies, never considering entrepreneurship for their journey. They choose to toe the line, do what is expected of them and walk a well-trodden path, deliberately turning down options with higher perceived risk in favour of security and certainty.

Taking the best of both

What if, instead of being separate fields with limited crossover, college students and business owners could take the best of both worlds? TeachingEntrepreneurship.org is a company co-founded in 2017 by entrepreneurship teachers Justin Wilcox, Doan Winkel and Federico Mammano whose focus is helping students in higher education develop entrepreneurial skills through its Experiential Entrepreneurship Curriculum (ExEC). The company creates experiences in which students develop entrepreneurial skills by becoming entrepreneurs. The 15-week program is used at over 130 colleges and more than 10,000 students have completed its courses.

The founders have an idea why their classes have become so popular. “Not every student wants to be an entrepreneur, but every student can benefit from entrepreneurial skills,” explained Wilcox. “No matter where a student ends up in their career; whether they start a company or join an existing company; entrepreneurial skills enable them to serve themselves by first serving others.”

Research by the Kauffman Foundation, a non-profit set up to boost entrepreneurship and improve education, on the evolution of entrepreneurship on college campuses, showed that between 1985 and 2008, the number of courses has increased approximately twentyfold. There are now more than 5,000 entrepreneurship courses in existence with over 400,000 students a year enrolling in them, responsible for around 9,000 faculty roles.

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In 2013, several schools, including Arizona State University, required all students to take classes introducing the principles of entrepreneurship. Over one-third of the 1,250 business incubators in the United States are situated within a college or university. Universities are certainly putting their hat in the ring of the entrepreneurship game, but does it make a difference in the futures of its students?

Key skills of entrepreneurship

Wilcox sees the key skills of entrepreneurship as empathy, experimentation and iteration, creative problem solving, financial management and effective communication. But without real-world context, teaching these skills is futile. “No one learns to play an instrument or ride a bike by reading a textbook. In the same way, entrepreneurial skills are developed by practicing them,” he said. For that reason, students using ExEC complete skill-building exercises such as the 60-minute MVP, where students launch a website in less than an hour to test demand for their idea and the financial projection simulator which models cashflow.

The purpose of entrepreneurship in education, including programs like TeachingEntrepreneurship.org, is developing the entrepreneurial mindset in general. There’s a growing belief that this will hold carryover benefits for graduates working within a role, joining the gig economy or working as part of a startup. Winkel said this means “no matter their career path they can leverage these skills and ways of thinking.” The Kauffman foundation added that “entrepreneurship is critical to understanding and succeeding in the contemporary global economy.”

Advancing a career

Learning and practicing the key skills of entrepreneurship aides someone’s career whether or not they go on to start a company. It could mean they glean more benefit from their main college course by way of context. The Kauffman Foundation said, “To neglect entrepreneurship or relegate it to the educational sidelines makes undergraduate learning orthogonal to the world it is supposed to help students learn to understand.” Entrepreneurial skills, learned in college, give real world relevance to degree courses.

There are not only benefits to students of studying entrepreneurship, regardless of their major, there are also benefits to the wider economy. According to academic researchers Charney and Libecap, entrepreneurship graduates are “three times more likely to start their own business, three times more likely to be self-employed, have annual incomes 27 per cent higher, own 62 per cent more assets, and are more satisfied with their jobs.” Wilcox added that, “not only does entrepreneurship education have an impact on student propensity and intentionality, we all benefit when students study entrepreneurship.”

Entrepreneurship and education are critical drivers of sustainable economic development and competitive advantage. The more entrepreneurial-minded people employed at regional, national and international firms, the more economic goals are achieved.

Studying entrepreneurship whilst starting a business

But what about those that start their own business? Those students that are cracking on with finding a great idea, testing its validity for market, defining an audience and preparing for launch. Will studying entrepreneurship alongside starting a business hold clear benefits?

Studying entrepreneurship whilst starting a business means the theory has real-life application. Students can apply the models they learn to their own business. There is no reliance on examples from companies in the news, past examples or fictitious entities, which hold no practical value. To really grasp what entrepreneurship is about, students need to do it.

Startups succeed based on their environment; peer support, access to resources, plenty of inspiration around them. Concentration of these factors explains why Silicon Valley has been the tech startup capital for so long. It’s no secret that great entrepreneurs are focused on growth and open to learning. Startup founders studying entrepreneurship become versed in processing information, assessing and planning. When they hit inevitable stumbling blocks, they can call upon guidance and coaching.

Giving entrepreneurs an edge

Studying entrepreneurship can give early-stage entrepreneurs an edge if they continue learning beyond the classroom; if they don’t expect entrepreneurship to be spoon-fed in the same way as other school subjects. If their focus is self-guided learning and application and if they are self-motivated. If the course is another tool in their toolbox.

If, however, a startup founder relies on a teacher’s advice to run their business, parks problems until the next class, doesn’t expand their mind beyond the curriculum or works within the mark scheme, it will only serve to make entrepreneurship another tick-box exercise, with no relevance to the real world of business which has little regard for neat lists and everything going to plan. “Unlike history, sociology or anthropology,” explained the Kauffman Foundation, “entrepreneurship creates what it studies.”

You do not need to go to university to start a successful business, but you do need to hold a growth mindset, be open to learning, and ready to capitalise on the resources around you. You can learn from books, you can join masterminds and accountability groups of entrepreneurs and you can hire a coach or mentor. University entrepreneurship courses can add essential skills to everyone, but there are plenty of ways to pick up these skills as long as someone has the desire to do so.

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