12/09/2013 01:37 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Being Entrepreneurial

"Being entrepreneurial" has gone viral. In business, government, health care, and education, everyone is talking about entrepreneurship. Yet what does the word really mean? Free enterprise? Innovation? Is all creative activity necessarily "entrepreneurial?" And why is entrepreneurship so important? Now is a good time to step back and reconsider the concept so that as National Entrepreneurship Month was celebrated we begin to specify what this concept means and why it matters.

Entrepreneurship happens when a creative individual seizes an opportunity to provide a product, service, or solution that is both better than what exists and sustainable (e.g., return on investment exceeds costs). Success does not come overnight. Transforming even a great idea into an entrepreneurial venture takes grit, conviction, the courage to fail early and the resilience to try again.

Many who value entrepreneurial activity nonetheless wonder whether it belongs in college. And some view its rapid emergence in higher education as merely the latest recruitment hype (e.g., Look at our Lazy River! Check out our new fitness center! Start your own company!). But, if done well, an entrepreneurship program substantively complements curricula in the arts and sciences and the overall undergraduate experience.

College is the place to ask What if? Why not? It is where we urge students to take chances -- to reframe the problems they encounter, to formulate new and better questions, and to risk failure in the quest for bold approaches and solutions. At Davidson, students learn to produce knowledge rather than passively consuming it. Small classes enable faculty to build even introductory courses around urgent issues drawn from their own scholarship: How can I live ethically in a pluralistic world? What is the best approach to treating cocaine addiction? Who learns to read early and why? What happens when the audience becomes part of the performance? Through such a curriculum, Davidson fosters ingenuity and educates incredibly talented young people for meaningful lives of leadership in service to something larger than themselves.

Entrepreneurship resonates powerfully with our arts and sciences curriculum, the experiences we offer beyond the classroom, and our aspirations for graduates. To learn if and how we can teach it, Davidson is experimenting with multiple programs, including internships with start-ups, a venture fund competition, opportunities to incubate good ideas, and workshops led by successful entrepreneurs. These all aim to cultivate in students crucial, transferable talents that will help them maximize their impact for good in the world. Over time we will build on what works.

Still, doing entrepreneurship well at a college can be a challenge. Entrepreneurs move fast and often act alone. They see opportunities that others do not, and in seizing them they risk ridicule and failure. Higher education institutions, on the contrary, move slowly, avoid risk, and resist change. Even though we house some of the most innovative people on the planet, we as institutions can be detached and even inward-looking. Because we serve multiple constituencies who rarely agree even among themselves, we easily default to the status quo or follow the deliberate path laid by more famous peers. It can be difficult for an institution to credibly teach a way of behaving that is so obviously at odds with its dominant modus operandi.

That's why at Davidson, we strive to model the entrepreneurial approaches we want our kids to learn. Our staff saw that local talent and our land resources created an opportunity to cut costs and improve food quality, so we started a farm. Faculty saw a need for a stronger bridge from high school to college, so Davidson is collaborating with AP teachers to test and disseminate new blended learning online units for economics, calculus, and physics. When a neighborhood seventh grader asked how kids without computers did their homework, Davidson students worked with community partners to end the digital divide in Davidson Elementary School and beyond.

Davidson has a long history of taking risks to seize worthwhile opportunities. To cite one example: With an enrollment of less than 2,000 we field 21 Division I athletic teams, because great scholar athletes deserve an unsurpassed education in their chosen field. When they get it, they can change the world.

Higher education today faces challenges that would benefit from new approaches and calculated risk-taking. Perhaps, in addition to creating entrepreneurship programs for our students, it's time for us, as institutions, to walk the walk.