The School of Hard Knocks: Can We Teach Entrepreneurship?

students in a classroom in a further education college, with one of them putting her hand up to ask a question
students in a classroom in a further education college, with one of them putting her hand up to ask a question

Whether we can teach entrepreneurship is actually a question about whether entrepreneurialism is fundamentally a mindset or a skill set. For years we've assumed that it is the former. "Entrepreneurial" has been used primarily to describe a personality trait, as if to imply that one is born entrepreneurial in the same way that one might be born creative or athletic. That said, even if we assume that entrepreneurs are made, not born, is it also a skill set that one can only truly learn on the job, as so many entrepreneurs tend to claim?

Culturally, we have made myths of the dogged entrepreneurs and their early failures, obstacles and ultimate triumphs learned in the school of hard knocks. Indeed, many successful entrepreneurs made a point of either dropping out of school to pursue their venture or casting school as antithetical to the entrepreneurial pursuit. (Does the old adage "never let your schooling get in the way of your education" sound familiar here?) So is there something oxymoronic about trying to codify or sanitize something that we've made a cult of seeing as renegade? Would the people likely to sign up for such a degree be precisely those least likely to possess the natural, innate temperament or gut instincts needed to be successful at it? Would Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Laurie Ann Goldman or Robin Chase have signed up for such a course had it been offered at the time?

Yet consider this: Stanford has surpassed Harvard as prospective students' "number-one dream school." Why? Perhaps because the new generation is not chasing investment banking jobs but would rather redesign the financial system. In the past, the barrier to entrepreneurialism used to be much higher. Starting your own shipyard in the early 1900s was the purview of the very few (and typically already wealthy). Starting your own blog, eBay marketplace or Etsy account (all clear entrepreneurial endeavors, in spite of their apparent modesty) are available to most. As a result, the so-called entrepreneurial mindset suddenly feels less rare, less specialized. The tools suggest that there is an entrepreneur in all of us, just waiting to get out.

In spite of the fact that the (mostly online) tools to enable entrepreneurship are becoming more ubiquitous, the reasons that entrepreneurs succeed or fail are rather old-fashioned. As Noam Wasserman, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, has pointed out, most entrepreneurial endeavors don't fail because of product/market fit but because of the breakdown of teams. Managing one's (and a team's) emotional ups and downs is inherently a risky, uncertain and highly dramatic process. The smooth navigation of this process isn't typically learned in a classroom. Furthermore, would-be entrepreneurs can't be taught what is perhaps the single most important lesson: learning how to deal with the stress, risk and emotions inherent in an entrepreneurial endeavor. That is literally the one thing that would almost certainly get scrubbed away in a school setting. School is "warmup"; it's about learning so you can one day do. Entrepreneurship requires that you do and learn and then continually do better -- and stay cool along the way, ad infinitum. That's why, if we are going to truly "teach" entrepreneurship, the course itself must be entrepreneurial. It can't be "university as usual" any more than entrepreneurial endeavors can afford to be "business as usual."

In the same way that we place a scalpel in the hands of first-year medical students, we must ask entrepreneurial students to literally get their hands (and wallets) dirty by taking on real risk, not theoretical risk; by having skin in the game, not just a course mark on the line; by getting something in the market, not presenting something in the classroom; and, most importantly, by effectively managing and dealing with the real emotions, fears and chaos of a founding team while trying to start something real. When you remove the true risk, the true fears of failures, the true messiness of intrapersonal dynamics, it's not an entrepreneurial education at all; it's just business school. And the market's been cornered there already.