The need for entrepreneurial thinkers and innovators is at an all time high. Fueled by the 2008 Financial Crisis and the arrival of economic powers China, India and Brazil, universities have proactively incorporated entrepreneurship into the curriculum at a feverish pace. In fact, according to the Kauffman Foundation, there are now more than 5,000 entrepreneurship-related courses being offered in two-year and four-year institutions. By comparison, in 1985 there were 250.
This mass migration of entrepreneurship into the classroom is an impactful step in the right direction, and it certainly doesn't hurt to report school rankings or admissions, but administrators should resist the temptation to measure the prosperity of their programs with enrollment totals, number of courses offered or even funds raised. Metrics like these may look sexy in a press release, but the true measure of success is far less quantifiable. The appropriate scorecard, in this case, is the learning experience itself and there is no standardized test to measure it in real-time.
Engineering a culture of entrepreneurial triumph requires a buy and hold approach that starts with encouraging more bright young minds to pursue what they are passionate about, supporting their ambition with mentorship and real-world business building exercises and resisting the temptation to glorify billion dollar exits with retrospective mimicry - and instead reinforcing the wisdom of trial and error, persistence and coach-ability.
Not everyone sets out to create the next social empire or build the technological infrastructure for the next millennium. Some people just want to connect a network of like-minded enthusiasts or develop an efficient way to find parking spots in the big city. In fact, the one truism amongst all the Hollywood embellishment of entrepreneurial success is the passion visionaries have for creating something new, different and better.
Behind the façade of entrepreneurial program investment headlines, many administrators are solely interested in commercializing the next biomedical breakthrough or claiming credit for producing a Facebook-like triumph. This shortsightedness is a product of corporate thinking - the same stubbornness that results in making budget cuts to the innovation pipeline in order to meet short-term financial projections... and it is deeply flawed. Why? Home runs like those rarely materialize independent of an established ecosystem - one that doesn't discriminate.
Encouraging students to experiment with ideas they are passionate about, regardless of perceived potential, is vital to delivering a meaningful and long lasting learning experience. Passion harvests action which in turn yields wisdom; the lessons learned become personal. Deeply engrained in memory, they pave the foundation for future success. And since the basic fundamentals of opening a food truck can also be applied to launching a tech startup, the value of instilling this know-how exists in the subsequent pursuit. Often it's the entrepreneur who fails a few times out of the gate who learns the most, and eventually strikes gold.
After passion, then what? How do you "teach" entrepreneurship? The good news is that it can be taught, but it's not something best learned from a textbook or case study, and certainly not an exam. "When you teach entrepreneurship you have to do it", says Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship and serial entrepreneur. "It's experiential. It's mentor intensive and the mentoring requires a lot of effort." Anyone who has started or been involved with a startup understands this, and so do the best educators. In fact, our mission at Venture Highway is to help those who guide entrepreneurs in classroom settings by providing them with the tools and infrastructure to build, manage and augment the learning experience delivered to students.
As any prudent startup does, we're constantly learning from our customers. In a recent survey of 250 entrepreneurial instructors in the U.S, we found that 77% of respondents rated experiential exercises, such as customer field interviews or simulations and business plan building, as very effective in terms of teaching entrepreneurship. By comparison, 45% rated textbooks as only average in terms of effectiveness. Instructors were also asked to identify the most challenging facet of entrepreneurship for students to grasp. Customer validation and embracing failure were two of the most frequent replies. Responses like "My biggest challenge is to get students to go out and talk to real customers instead of doing a Google search" and "They seek answers when all there are, are more questions", reinforce the need for real, validated learning. Movies, textbooks and case studies are invariably created to analyze success by peering into the past, a luxury no entrepreneur will ever have.
According to the survey, tools and methodologies such as The Business Model Canvas and The Lean Startup (most popular) offer students an easy to understand guide for engaging in, and measuring, productive entrepreneurial activity. Many schools and accelerator programs, including Venture Highway, have built product offering around these frameworks.
Silicon Valley VC's have, for years, embraced the notion that strong teams with passion are equally as important as big ideas. The most important thing any university can do is to encourage young people to solve problems they are passionate about, prepare them with real-world experience and support them with the mentorship and guidance they need to understand what it takes to succeed by people who have done it before. Kyle Gantos, a recent MBA graduate of Ohio State University and founder of Meet Your Gig, is concerned that some higher-ups just don't get it. "Young people are full of ideas but few act on them because they don't know where to begin and they're afraid of failure." He adds, "Even if 99% of student bicycle shops and t-shirt stands fail to ever get off the ground, thousands of young minds will have a greater understanding and appreciation for what it takes to launch a successful business; that knowledge and confidence pave the way for future success." Administrators who control program funding, influence curriculum decisions and establish how we measure success, had better be listening...
The appropriate scorecard should include other points, such as volume of ideas explored, number of customers contacted, frequency of opportunities identified, and the availability of time, resources and support provided to those who advance to the business building stage. Failure should be documented, celebrated and distributed as motivation for others to take a risk during a time of their life where there is little to no opportunity cost. The more entrepreneurial thinkers we have, the more idea sharing that takes place, the larger the support networks; eventually more people with more experience are attacking more problems and a culture of entrepreneurship emerges. This approach requires long-term commitment - a challenge for CEO's at both the business and university level, but it is the only way to truly make a difference beyond self-gratifying false positives and attention grabbing press releases.
Written by Kevin Gadd -Founder and CEO, Venture Highway
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