Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

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Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in 2007.

Flickr / Joi under Creative Commons

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in 2007.

“Innovation is following your instincts.”

“Innovation is pushing beyond known limits and making it work.”

“Innovation is bringing happiness.”

These quotable mantras from the live Twitter feed for the 2013 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions’ closing session “Innovating into the Future” beg the questions: If innovation is so critical, how can we foster entrepreneurship at an early age? Can we really teach people to yield positive social returns by challenging norms, pursuing passions, and taking risks? Or is innovative entrepreneurship something innate that cannot be taught?

The WEF’s high-profile participants hold differing views on whether one can teach people to succeed as entrepreneurs, but they all support instilling business fundamentals and entrepreneurial principles in youth of all backgrounds and personalities. Here are three different viewpoints.

1. Yes, entrepreneurship needs to be in classrooms worldwide!

Amy Rosen is CEO of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), an American program that trains teachers to lead entrepreneurship classes. Through a year- or semester-long curriculum, middle and high school students learn to write a business plan, keep accounting records, market a good or service, and pitch their ideas in regional and national competitions. Over NFTE’s 26 years of operation, 500,000 students have become entrepreneurs, often by selling T-shirts or babysitting for neighborhood children.

The program addresses what Rosen believes to be a huge problem: youth unemployment.

“The youth unemployment numbers are not going down,” says Rosen. “A young person is three times as likely to be unemployed as an adult. We’re five hundred million jobs short in the next generation of jobs for youth. Entrepreneurship becomes the best employer.”

Although it is difficult to directly correlate NFTE’s work to increased employment, research has shown that NFTE’s educational modules lead to lower dropout rates, greater career readiness, and business formation at twice the rate of students who have not undergone training.

Rosen does not believe every child is suited for an entrepreneurial career, but she is quick to debunk the myth that educational institutions should only support the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.

“The notion that all kids should learn certain knowledge and skills is very important,” says Rosen. “You can teach kids to develop the attributes of successful entrepreneurs, such as persevering through obstacles and accepting failure. You can also free children’s minds to think differently. Our most successful entrepreneurs are often the students doodling at the back of the classroom, completely unengaged, because they don’t learn in traditional ways.”

Entrepreneurial education is on the rise. NFTE is leading a slew of organizations, from Junior Achievement to the National Federation of Independent Business, that buy into the philosophy that the processes of idea generation and implementation are as fundamental to a child’s long-term development as are reading and writing.

2. Yes, but students must come to the table with an entrepreneurial mindset and intrinsic motivation

From DreamIt Ventures to the Unreasonable Institute, there are many accelerator and incubator programs that construct what the WEF calls “ecosystems to engage and enable people to become entrepreneurs.” These hubs for innovation usually provide mentoring, networking, and funding opportunities for people who, by nature, have a pioneering spirit and desire to create change.

Rick Aubry, the founder of New Foundry Ventures, one such ecosystem for social entrepreneurship in the Silicon Valley, believes that not everyone can thrive as a social entrepreneur.

“Social entrepreneurship in particular requires personality, orientation, tenacity, and commitment to solving problems,” explains Aubry. “You have to have a certain capacity to take risks as well as the flexibility to adapt to change.” Given his background investing in social startups, he does, however, believe that when a spark exists, it can – and should – be kindled. Aspiring social entrepreneurs enter New Foundry Ventures with a few ideas, but they may need Aubry’s assistance to conduct feasibility studies, build prototypes, evaluate outcomes, and identify key locations for long-term program implementation.

Francisco Jose Cordoba from Colombia participated in an incubator program called the Founder Institute prior to piloting Pachoman, an NGO that supports young people who are addressing educational and technological disparities. Cordoba is a Global Shaper, a person between 20 and 30 years of age whom the WEF has recognized for exceptional leadership potential. From Cordoba’s experience recruiting and training young innovators through Pachoman, he says, “I think you can be taught entrepreneurship, but you will not be as good of an entrepreneur as if you were born with the entrepreneurship gene.” As someone who initially dropped out of college to create the tech startup Seed Software, Cordoba feels strongly that entrepreneurs need to be willing to tread far beyond their comfort zone.

3. No, teach business on the blackboard and bring entrepreneurs to the field!

Toni Thorne, an award-winning serial entrepreneur from the Caribbean, thanks her parents for fostering her interest in the broader world and encouraging her to better her Jamaican community.

“At six, I founded a summer camp that was very successful. I always liked reading and building things,” Thorne explains. For Thorne, intellectual curiosity and inventiveness, key traits of any entrepreneur, emerged naturally. She thus believes “that business skills, like finance and accounting, can be taught, but that entrepreneurship cannot.”

Thorne has initiated numerous projects, including a clothing line called BoUIK and Martha’s Smile, a charity for children suffering from HIV/AIDS. With every undertaking, she has grown from her mistakes and taken advantage of new connections. Thorne’s perspective supports the view that youth need to learn entrepreneurship through apprenticeships rather than through case studies and textbooks which publishing houses export to the masses.

Conversations with Rosen, Aubry, Cordoba, and Thorne reveal that the two sides of the debate around teaching entrepreneurship bear a crucial point of intersection. When entrepreneurial education becomes more experiential and accelerator or incubator programs become more accessible, everyone reaps the benefits. Students with entrepreneurial inclinations reach greater heights of success, “closeted” entrepreneurs are able to uncover inherent skills, and even the most left-brained of people feel inspired to test new hypotheses.

At the end of a session called “Learning Creativity,” moderator and Chief Business Correspondent for the BBC Linda Yueh asked the audience, “Can creativity be taught?” Perhaps people were feeling buoyed by their proximity to so many bright minds or overly hopeful about entrepreneurship’s capacity to improve the dismal economic climate, but almost all the hands went up. The overwhelming feeling was that, yes, with the right tools, it is possible to stimulate anyone’s imagination.

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