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Entrepreneurs and Astronauts
January 15, 2014 - 11:25am

Writing in the Inside Higher Ed blog StratEDgy, Dayna Catropa reports that students want courses and degrees in entrepreneurship, but colleges and universities aren’t keeping pace.

Apparently, the Millennials want to be entrepreneurs, and they believe their educations should help foster this desire.

By disposition, I’m reflexively distrustful of broad declarations about generational cohorts. Yes, we are products of our environment and time, but I tend to believe that there are a number of common, reasonably immutable things that drive most people regardless of our birth year.

We want to do work that is interesting to us, which means it is challenging, creative, and affords a reasonable measure of freedom in the doing. We want to be materially comfortable, which for some people means filthy rich, but for others simply means freedom from worrying about where your next rent check is coming from.

While this is a sweeping generalization in and of itself, I believe most people want to do good while also doing well, that they are not primarily motivated by greed. Even Ayn Rand’s heroes with their ethic of selfishness are presented as beneficial to society as a whole.

So when Millennials report that they want to be “entrepreneurs,” this is simply their expression of desiring the things most everyone wants.

It just so happens that a combination of factors, such as a increasing college costs (leading to debt), historically dismal employment prospects, and experience with the standardization of education signals to them that the previously trod paths may be both uninteresting and financially undesirable. The corporate ladder seems to have been pulled up by previous generations.

They’ve also been exposed to success stories like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and those obnoxious Snapchat kids[1].

In a lot of ways, there’s little difference between Millennials wanting to be entrepreneurs and Boomers wanting to be astronauts. It looks like the coolest thing out there.

I wanted to be Bono. Still do.

The other question of whether or not colleges and universities should do more to teach entrepreneurship is outside my expertise and well above my pay grade, and as Catropa notes, there’s much sentiment within the industry itself that entrepreneurship isn’t something that can be taught.

I suppose my sentiments tend to lead that way since I think it may be akin to teaching creative writing. There’s a set of skills that instructors can attempt to convey, but ultimately, success hinges on things like drive and inspiration. These may also be skills, but their development relies on self-motivation.

From a higher ed market perspective, I think schools probably just need to rebrand things they already do and show how they may be useful to the future entrepreneurs of the world. Accounting can be relabled, “How to Make Sure You’re Making Money.” Marketing becomes “Giving People What They Want, Whether They Know it or Not.

Psychology, sociology, graphic design, programming, business management all seem like relevant subjects to budding entrepreneurs. How about yoga, as a way to calm their minds and bodies in order to come up with that one brilliant idea, like inventing an app that allows people to send naked pictures to each other without worrying about it (too much, anyway)?

Even fiction writing can get in on the mix: “Imagining the Lives of Your Future Customers.”

Seems to me we have a branding issue, not a curriculum problem.

[1] This link is worth reading for the almost unbelievable anecdote about Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel’s reaction when his father refused to lease him a BMW 550i. More interesting, however, is Spiegel’s reason for turning down $3 billion from Facebook: ‘There are very few people in the world who get to build a business like this,’ he said of the decision in a recent interview with Forbes Magazine. ‘I think trading that for some short-term gain isn’t very interesting.’ Even the spoiled children of the already wealthy want to do personally engaging work.

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