October 22, 2017

Why teach entrepreneurship?

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It’s an old question: “can you teach entrepreneurship?” Many people believe that entrepreneurship just happens – people are either entrepreneurs or they are not. As a consequence, what’s the point in teaching it?

Certainly, there’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship happens in the absence of formal education. Look at Richard Branson of Virgin or Steve Jobs of Apple – they didn’t go to university, and Bill Gates of Microsoft famously dropped out of Harvard. Mark Zuckerberg was presumably so underwhelmed by university that he started Facebook, and dropped out when it started to take off.

So what does that tell us? Certainly, it shows that, in these cases at least, formal education was not required for business success – and it seems pretty safe to assume that these guys were not enrolled in entrepreneurship classes either. They are entrepreneurs; it’s in their bones and in their DNA, and no business schooling was involved.

However – and it’s a big however – without education, the idea that they could be entrepreneurs might never have occurred to some people, and the skills and knowledge required to take an idea, mould it to meet market needs and start a business from which to release value might never have happened. It doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened; it just means it’s less likely.

I recently met John, a former student from a university where I taught entrepreneurship several years ago when I was a young social scientist who had stumbled into business research, and by virtue of my contract, was obliged to teach business venturing. At this time, you could say I was perhaps the least qualified person in the world to teach entrepreneurship: I’d never been in business, didn’t come from a business family, and had been employed in academic jobs – about as far away from commercial markets as possible.

I felt out of my depth. I was an experienced teacher, but for this topic, I did not feel credible. Despite this, you have to do what you have to do, and so I embarked on teaching business essentials – markets, access to finance, research, etc. – and I begged, cajoled and dragged entrepreneurs I had worked with into my classes to talk about their experiences. To my delight, students were enthusiastic and we generated some really good ideas. I knew some students were going to start these businesses properly after graduation.

But that doesn’t mean they had been taught entrepreneurship. Maybe they would have started up regardless.

But then I met John. He told me that when he left university he could not find a job; he graduated with a degree in Finance with a Language in 2008 at the start of the global recession! He had hoped to join a big finance firm or perhaps one of the banks. Despondent and worried, he decided to employ himself as a translator.

Rather than tide himself over until the employment market picked up, however, John found he had a taste for business. Now he is a director of three businesses – all successful and the original translation firm now employs 35 people in three countries.

So has John been taught entrepreneurship? His explanation is: “I like to make money… I can spot where there’s a need and I can create a business. I enjoy finding a niche market and exploiting it, making it successful. Entrepreneurship classes were useful. They taught me to do lots of research… I enjoyed learning the reality of what really does happen in a business.”

John says he would not have thought of starting a firm had he not taken entrepreneurship classes during his degree. Instead, he says he would have “taken any old job to get by”.

So to return to the question: “can you teach entrepreneurship?” … The answer seems to be that some people do not need to be taught entrepreneurship. Exceptionally successful people seem to have achieved extraordinary things. But their exceptionality is perhaps the key here. For those who do not have a background in markets, or business, or who have not considered the possibilities of an entrepreneurial career – for people like John – entrepreneurship is made possible, nurtured and from there, extraordinary things can happen.

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