Can entrepreneurship be taught?

EntrepreneurI am often asked about the role of university education in preparing young entrepreneurs. It’s the age-old question of “nature vs. nurture”, which traits are innate and which can be taught and developed, and so on.

My take on this is that research seems to come down on the side of a blend of traits which might predispose some people toward the types of behaviors one might find in entrepreneurs, coupled with training and development of specific skills required to launch new business ventures. To be more specific, the types of traits that may be seen as supportive of entrepreneurship include the ability to tolerate risk, the ability to deal with ambiguity and lack of structure, passion for an idea, tenacity and perseverance, and the vision of what can be possible, given the right set of conditions.

But the interesting thing about entrepreneurship is that some of the same traits that might best describe successful entrepreneurs might also work against launching a new venture. For example, passion and tenacity may make dealing with the reality that a business model simply won’t work difficult to swallow. Risk taking in the pursuit of a properly developed customer-centric business venture is what sets entrepreneurs apart from those who are simply risk averse and reluctant to act. But the tricky part of entrepreneurship is about knowing when to take a well-measured and well-calculated risk, not simply risky behavior.

As for role of educators and what we can do to better prepare entrepreneurs to launch new businesses, I can think of five categories where we can contribute:

1. Teaching the topics. Here we are talking about providing definition and context in explaining concepts, such as the difference between creativity and innovation. Often in explaining a rudimentary “Business 101” framework, students begin to place their idea within that context and start to develop and organize it further. With the proper context established and through the use of plenty of real world examples, student entrepreneurs begin to see the application of key concepts to their business ideas.
2. A safe laboratory environment. A university is a place for exploration and experimentation. Here it is OK to make mistakes – in fact, it’s an integral part of the learning process. Better to find out in school through research, analysis and customer feedback that an idea won’t work than to confront that reality six months after launch.
3. Business literacy. Here is where the role of colleges, universities and other types of training is most obvious. Teaching students finance, the law, marketing and so on is essential in preparing entrepreneurs to launch successful new ventures. With that in mind, teaching specifically to the student’s business idea, rather than a more general approach, helps students see the application of concepts more clearly.
4. Guest speakers. An important part of our school’s curriculum is the frequent use of outside experts as guest speakers in class or larger group sessions in auditoriums and other venues. In fact, I came to the school originally as a guest speaker, myself. Every week and across the university, we have a variety of guest speakers in one degree program or another. Whether in a classroom, auditorium or streaming online, these bona fide outside experts draw from their direct experience in their field, with rich stories and examples of important business concepts.
5. Mentorship and networking. Here at our university, and especially in our graduate degree programs, we see the role of our faculty as mentors and coaches, rather than strictly didactic. As student entrepreneurs develop their business ideas, our role as educators is to provide mentorship, guidance and direction, including referrals to other program faculty and contacts outside of the university. Our faculty members don’t provide the answers – they guide students to find the answers.

As educators, it’s always gratifying to see the success that so many of our graduates have achieved. Most graduates will leave school in a quest to find jobs, but a small percentage will take the entrepreneurial plunge and create a job for themselves and others. Our job is to do everything we can to make sure they are successful.

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