Everywhere you turn today, it seems there is an event, program or class teaching you how to become an entrepreneur. And everyone wants in on the action, from government agencies, nonprofits, foundations, incubators, and accelerators to new programs like the brief immersion experiences such as Startup Weekend. A wide variety of certificate programs, boot camps and elective courses are also cropping up at both accredited institutions as well as community centers. Entrepreneurship is today's cool kid on the block.
But, for me, the question is this: is it even possible to teach someone to become a successful entrepreneur in a classroom setting? I'm not convinced, especially in the case where the student has little or no on-the-job experience developing the leadership, business acumen, and marketing skills required to run a startup.
I'm not sure anyone has all of the answers, but why it is worth pursuing the answers is pretty clear. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that almost half of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product comes from small businesses, but according to the Brookings Institution, new startups have dropped by 28% over, roughly, the past thirty years. If small businesses are the backbone of the American economy but fewer are willing to join the ranks of small business owners, that trend must change if we are to prevent further havoc on the economy. Thus there has arisen this implicit imperative to somehow churn out individuals who are capable of launching a startup, possess the creativity to dream up innovative solutions - not to mention also having the right characteristics to scale those startups into thriving businesses which can employ others within the community.
Character Traits Can't Be Taught in Seminar or Lecture
As someone who is entering my sixth year as a founder of a civic tech startup and who has also lived for over two decades in the startup world as my spouse and his cofounders launched, grew and successfully exited tech companies, I have a hard time believing that the character traits needed to become a successful startup founder can be taught in a classroom. There is no way to simulate the roller coaster of emotions or to train someone to have the drive they'll need to overcome obstacles threatening a startup's success. And while I believe it is vital to seek out mentors and role models - sitting in a classroom with twenty other individuals while listening to a guest speaker, especially if that speaker doesn't have an impressive history as a successful entrepreneur? I'm just not convinced that a parade of personalities can prepare a student for much of anything beyond adding a few new war stories to the mix and gaining new contacts for future networking.
The Problem With Partypreneurs
It also concerns me that some of today's very well-intentioned initiatives may be feeding the wrong ideas and even attracting the wrong demographic altogether. For startup groupies who go from event to event, it is so easy to gloss over the loneliness and isolation that often happens as founders focus on building their startup. Instead, those I'll call the Partypreneurs thrive on the sense of belonging and excitement they feel events and mistake those emotions as an indication of success.
Partypreneurs want the lifestyle without paying the dues. Entrepreneurship is far more about sacrifice and personal cost than any kind of hip lifestyle, glory or fun. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that building a startup isn't exciting or fun. It is. But entrepreneurship is not a lifestyle; it is a calling that often requires deep sacrifice to build a better future not only for oneself but for those the startup serves.
The Challenge With Teaching Entrepreneurship
I recently had an interesting conversation with Stacy Sacco, who currently serves as the Director of the Small Business Institute and Parker Center for Family Business as well as a lecturer for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of New Mexico's Anderson School of Management. He expressed concern that such a small segment of the university's population were currently enrolled in the entrepreneurship program. "Our schools, several economic development agencies, etcetera, are creating an extensive infrastructure for start-ups, but only about 150 students out of over 28,000 students at UNM are enrolled in the entrepreneurial studies track."
Despite my contention that the traits of a successful entrepreneur cannot be taught, I do believe there are a few things we can do to make entrepreneurship programs more useful and relevant to those currently enrolled and to attract higher attendance in the future.
Require Internships and Mentoring
Just as many other programs require internships and student-immersed, hands-on learning, it should also be a requirement for entrepreneurship programs. If a student is working at a local startup, the relevancy of the curriculum will immediately increase. And for startup founders, the opportunity to use the coursework within their own business will be seen as a bonus, not a burden. Because of the skill sets required to run a startup are so diverse, entrepreneurship programs must also deliver a curriculum with a broad knowledge base to attract the serious entrepreneurs or produce students properly equipped to launch a startup. As one student recently told me, "I have no plans to start a company, and I'm not sure I even want to work at a startup. I just took the entrepreneurship track because it looked like the easiest coursework." We need to raise the bar not only of coursework offerings but in requiring hands-on experience if we are going avoid setting up founders for failure.
Provide Cross-Discipline Electives
Most of the entrepreneurship programs I've seen that are attached to university curriculum seem to be imbedded as an optional component towards a business degree. Because entrepreneurs come from every field of study and background, entrepreneurship programs would likely enjoy higher enrollment if relevant elective options were available within other fields of study, such as engineering, science, or medicine. With the background knowledge acquired through entrepreneurial-focused electives, scientists, engineers and even those in the medical profession would be far better equipped to launch their own startup long after graduating from college.
Boot Camp, Certificate and Not-For-Credit Courses
While the more conventional higher education institutions might benefit by extending entrepreneurship electives to a broader sector of the student body, there are many individuals who have no intention of enrolling in a degreed program. Recently, some of our team met with leaders from the University of Phoenix and the Apollo Group to explore opportunities to foster a more inviting environment for underrepresented groups such as women and minorities within technology-based programs as well ways to present real-world, hands-on experiences within current course offerings. Because most current student loan programs and grants do not cover these more unconventional programs which are often much shorter in duration and more focused in content to serve specific needs within the entrepreneurial community, it is often difficult to find an affordable model to reach these more unconventional learners. It is a challenge our team has begun to explore because we have seen such a positive response to our platform among these very groups at our civic hacking events.
Communities Must Foster Cooperative Ecosystems
If entrepreneurs are to have the best chance for success, it is vital that any entrepreneurship program be tied into the rest of the community's ecosystem so that there is a contiguous line of support from the classroom to the real world. When competing support entities become territorial and make it difficult for the founder to move in and out of segments of support as the need arises, it makes it far more difficult for the entrepreneur to engage in the wide variety of support and training that might be needed for success. When universities, alternative higher education private institutions, accelerators, incubators, investors and business centers all work together as a cohesive ecosystem, everyone comes out the winner.
While I am still not certain anyone can actually be taught the character traits required for entrepreneurship as an academic exercise, I do believe it is important to continue finding ways to empower more within the community to launch their own business. There is also much that can be done to make technology less intimidating, more accessible and affordable to those who are disenfranchised by the current options. There is much about entrepreneurship that cannot be taught, but we can focus on these opportunities to improve to better prepare entrepreneurs to be able to face the real work that will begin the day they launch their own company.