Wrong Question on Entrepreneurship

October 18, 2013

The answer to the question, “Can entrepreneurship be taught?” has been framed several different ways in both scholarly articles and in the popular press, addressed by talented researchers, gifted teachers and successful entrepreneurs. Can you learn entrepreneurship in a classroom or do you learn only in the real world? Are entrepreneurs made or born? Do genes influence the likelihood that a person would take a risk?

Experienced and wise entrepreneurs and scholars have weighed in on both sides of the debate, convincingly. All the while, the demand for entrepreneurship education has continued to increase.

We have seen entrepreneurship take root in the curriculums of universities across the country, and its appeal has spread from business schools to disciplines as varied as art, nursing, engineering, education and music. Formal programs in entrepreneurship have more than quadrupled, from 104 in 1975 to more than 500 in 2006. Outside of universities, business development organizations, accelerators and incubators, and an array of nonprofits are attracting aspiring entrepreneurs. As Harvard Business School’s Noam Wasserman points out, “[f]ounders of startups clearly believe that they can learn.”

The question we should be asking is: How do we teach entrepreneurs? How can we provide lessons and experiences for founders that matter? I contend that any lesson or experience we provide should enable the aspiring entrepreneur to answer substantively this simple impact question: How will what I have learned today change what I will, or am able to, do tomorrow? 

After all, isn’t seeing a change in knowledge and action a sign of learning in just about any context? Teach a medical student how to complete a particular procedure, and the next day she can demonstrate a new skill. Teach a child how to balance on a bike, and the next day (fingers crossed against skinned knees) he can ride down the street.

Teach entrepreneurs about the pitfalls of agreeing to 50-50 equity splits with a handshake at the outset of a new venture, and in the coming months they’ll examine the commitments, expectations, skills and contributions of their co-founders and create agreements that enable the company to change with circumstances. Teach entrepreneurs the skill and discipline needed to qualify customers, and they’ll be more efficient and effective in their sales process.

We can teach entrepreneurs countless skills and insights that will change how they approach their business, and we can do this in universities, accelerators and mentoring programs.

Lessons would include how to evaluate opportunity, how entrepreneurial selling differs from professional selling, how to effectively communicate about their business and why corporate intellectual property strategy is important. We can highlight tools that improve productivity, and use data to uncover patterns in the success and failure of new ventures that highlight the consequences of decisions about when to found and how to manage investment.

Applying the discipline of customer discovery can help entrepreneurs avoid spending time and money building a product that no one wants to buy. Founders can learn the skills of negotiation, presentation, marketing and hiring.

Even those with personality qualities that are strongly associated with entrepreneurial inclinations (or even entrepreneurial success) can learn new skills and acquire knowledge about how their natural inclinations might be a liability in the long run. In the process of creating their own venture, founders can explore these topics through classroom lectures, discussions, simulation exercises, internships, and certainly through on-the-go learning. So it isn’t a question of whether they can learn in the classroom, or whether they have to learn in the real world; they can do both.

Using the impact question approach to teaching entrepreneurship has implications for goals as educators, as well as for whether and how we can measure success. Typical measures of successful education programs might include how many companies are created or how much investment participants attract. These may indeed be helpful questions to ask.

However, keep in mind that other answers to impact questions might be: “as a result of what I learned I decided not to pursue this venture…” or “I realized that the market for my product isn’t what I thought it would be, so I’m taking my company in a different direction” or “I reflected on my financial circumstances, and I realize now that this isn’t the time for me to pursue my venture.”

Vital learning outcomes like these can make a tremendous difference to the entrepreneur and simply aren’t captured in metrics that focus only on companies founded and investment dollars secured (though these metrics are significant as well).

How can we provide high-impact experiences for entrepreneurs (both aspiring and those taking the plunge)? In implementing entrepreneurship learning experiences it is important to identify valuable lessons (such as those identified above), highlight outcomes (e.g., founders better-equipped for particular challenges) and document both qualitative and quantitative outcomes. We should be finding ways to provide entrepreneurs with hands-on learning opportunities and experiential immersion that enable them to acquire new, practical knowledge that they can apply immediately. 

Entrepreneurship can indeed be taught. It’s the “how” that really matters, and keeping in mind the impact question can help educators in all parts of the entrepreneurship ecosystem ensure that their lessons are helping to create more knowledgeable, skilled entrepreneurs who have a greater chance at success.

Bio

Wendy E.F. Torrance is a director of entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where she leads the development of the recently launched Kauffman Founders School.

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