6 Lessons for Schools From Start-Up Incubators

03/13/2015 12:30 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

Schools have been called upon to empower the next generation of innovators and job creators. Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East where youth make up over 40 percent of the adult population, yet where we have the highest unemployment rate in the world.

Over the past four years, I have worked with a network of schools and community partners to build entrepreneurial education programs for youth in the United Arab Emirates. In the process, I met with many entrepreneurs and visited numerous co-working spaces, incubators, and accelerators. At the beginning of this journey, meeting with an entrepreneur or visiting an accelerator felt like walking through the looking glass. I am a third generation educator. No one in my family has owned a business.

I quickly realized how similar the work schools and incubators can be and yet how different our approaches typically are.

As schools consider ways to include or improve entrepreneurial education, we need to consider ways to break down the barriers of traditional education in order make this endeavor meaningful and transformative to students.

Below are six of the lessons I believe schools could learn from incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces.

To be fair, schools engage in all of the activities below. But we do it differently. We deal with different challenges and constraints. Still, let's take some time to reimagine.

Work in multidisciplinary teams.

This applies to both teachers and students. Successful entrepreneurs rarely work in isolation. They need teams with technical skills, art and design skills, business skills, and the ability to empathize with and understand people. School leadership teams and student project teams benefit from the same diversity.

Develop flexible, multi-dimensional learning environments.

We spend a great deal of time in schools crafting enriching learning environments. We strive for flexibility but are often hindered by more traditional furniture or even the architecture of a building. Incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces take a more multi-dimensional approach. They consider the online and offline learning experience for their entrepreneurs - acknowledging that some learning will be best done in a classroom setting, some through immersive programs, some online, and some through simply asking a peer for help. The physical and personal needs of learners are also considered. There are places for working with others, places for working alone, pods for quiet conversation, stand up tables for those who think best on their feet...There are places for working quietly and places for making noise. And there are usually beanbags - lots of beanbags.

Intentionally connect students and the community.

Incubators and accelerators strive to connect their entrepreneurs and the community. Community engagement is an essential component to the learning process for these new businesses. Business partners, mentors, and the community at large can provide feedback, coach from experience, help facilitate additional partnerships, and may even one day become clients or customers.

School programs, such as internships, mentorship, and speakers series like our popular "Lunch with an Entrepreneur" program provide a real-world context for students' learning.These programs model that learning is ongoing and that we are just as likely to learn from one another as we are to learn from a book. These programs also require that students take risks and interact with people of different ages and backgrounds - essential skills to have in the workplace.

Make time for unscheduled play.

Most schools have set and limited recess or break time. There are exceptions to this - like Philadelphia's Miquon School or the entire country of Finland. Most incubators and shared working spaces have a place for play - and acknowledge that we play in different ways. The Cribb, a co-working space with an accelerator in Dubai, is built around an indoor soccer pitch. There are also the requisite video games and foosball tables - plus white board walls for those that prefer to unwind by drawing. The entrepreneurs are trusted to know when and how they need to take a break.

Engage in right here, right now learning.

Whether through choice or necessity, entrepreneurs must engage in real-time, self-directed learning. This may include learning the basics of coding to communicate with a technical team or learning design thinking to better understand users. Incubators and accelerators help entrepreneurs understand their learning needs and find the necessary resources.

Schools certainly encourage students to push themselves and to move progressively beyond their comfort zone. Yet to embrace this level of uncertainty, challenge, and self-directed learning on an organizational level would be a radical move for most schools.

Measure success by outcomes, not just test scores.

Of course, tests matter. As we say to our students, good test scores are their tickets onto the plane. Without them, they will struggle to fly.

Yet, the success of our students and our models of teaching and learning cannot be measured by test scores alone. Certainly not when we are being charged with helping to develop a generation of students who will have to solve problems we don't yet know exist and will hold jobs we can't yet imagine.

I recently visited an incubator in New York City. The incubator director was clear as he shared that he and his team did not measure their success by feedback surveys or media. They measured their success by the number of entrepreneurs with thriving businesses one year out of their program.

Perhaps we are collecting the wrong data on our students.