The word "entrepreneur" has taken on a life of its own. Everyone from politicians to college professors is talking about entrepreneurs. Most people agree that we need more of them, and that having more of them will help our national economy, but how do we get more engaged, successful entrepreneurs?
It will take a slow cooker mentality rather than a microwave mentality to fix our economy and create new companies. We cannot expect that a student will take a class or two and be ready to start, grow and exit a new business. It doesn't happen that way for non-student entrepreneurs, and it won't happen with students, no matter how great their instructors are.
A common question is whether entrepreneurs are born or can be taught. Having taught more than 1,000 student and non-student entrepreneurs, I believe we can teach entrepreneurship. There isn't one recipe for an entrepreneur. Anyone can be one. Some people are born with certain strengths, but one's success at starting and building a business isn't predetermined.
The belief that entrepreneurs can be taught seems to be the prevailing notion, which is encouraging, and the places where one can be taught is growing.
Here are some examples:
- The Academy of Management (AOM) notes that the entrepreneurship division is the fastest growing of all of the management disciplines.
- The Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers (GCEC) reports year after year growth in centers and programs devoted to entrepreneurship.
- Colleges not known for having any business courses, such as art schools, are piloting entrepreneurship classes to prepare students to open their own studios, shops and law firms.
Several schools of thought on how to teach entrepreneurship exist. Some colleges use case studies or textbooks and direct students to think about how others did it and how they might do it better. This is an insufficient answer to entrepreneurship education. Others, however, are more effective in that they engage students by putting them in teams to work on business plans or models, interact with mentors and present ideas to others. This path helps students learn about and feel entrepreneurship. Courses taught in this immersive style are best and seem to be growing faster.
We also need to consider what constitutes success in terms of educating young entrepreneurs. When describing their programs, professors I've spoken with often detailed the ideas that went on to win business plan competitions or raised a couple thousand dollars to start a company. These are great individual wins, but they're not the measure of success we should be using for educating entrepreneurs.
Looking at the number of "successful" businesses to come out of entrepreneurship courses is too shortsighted. Most courses create teams around the ideas and these teams typically don't survive past the term. However, what does survive after the term is the passion to start something and the desire to learn more. This is the best way to judge success. By focusing on these key elements, we will see more businesses started by young entrepreneurs with a little bit of knowledge and a lot of passion.
At The Ohio State University, for example, the Foundations of Entrepreneurship course is large and serves as the entry point into the entrepreneurship minor. Last year, almost 500 students took this class and more than 1,000 are projected to take it in 2013. The classes produced more than100 teams working on new business ideas. Teams from those classes placed first, second and third in the undergraduate business plan competition, but not much came from the rest. Or did it? OSU's entrepreneurship program has been a huge success -- that is, if we use the correct method of gauging that success.
Here are the facts:
- Other entrepreneurship courses have doubled in size.
- Several new courses have been added to the program.
- The number of entries to the business plan competition has doubled.
- More students are joining entrepreneurship clubs, local accelerators and startup weekend events.
- More students are joining local startups to gain experience in starting a business.
Take Spencer Bardsley, a senior at Ohio State, for example. Bardsley took several entrepreneurship courses at OSU and worked in a different team on an interesting, but short-lived, idea each time. He did, however, develop passion and skills that he used to form teams outside of the classroom to work on several ideas. One of his ideas, Perchmount, included a Kickstarter campaign and continuous product refinement and customer involvement. If we use the correct scoring system, it is clear that Bardsley's a successful product of our entrepreneurship program. He's on his way to owning a successful new business.
What we need to do is arm students with valuable knowledge, like starting and running lean, talking to customers and creating high performance teams. We can teach them about basic financial and strategic planning, and the will to conquer the inevitable trials that come with a new business. It's not the short-term results of starting businesses from the classroom that matter. It's the passion for starting a business, the fundamental skills and the confidence to know that they can do it that matter most.