Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Most of us think of entrepreneurs as lone operators, men and women with the energy, drive and passion to build empires…people like Walt Disney, Coco Chanel, and Steve Jobs. In many ways, the country was created by such independent thinkers. Some of our most famous entrepreneurs were college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates—many didn’t even go to school. Yet, there’s been substantial growth in the study of entrepreneurship in higher education over the past 40 years. In 1985, there were only 250 such programs in the country, according to the Kaufman Foundation, the world’s largest foundation devoted to entrepreneurship. Today, 2,000 colleges and universities offer some 5,000 courses on entrepreneurship. *

This growth begs the question: can education produce entrepreneurs? Some business leaders like Ann Winblad, a co-founding partner at Hummer Winblad Venture Partners in San Francisco, think the subject can’t be taught, that entrepreneurs are born not made. ** Yet, many schools are producing entrepreneurs who are reshaping how we live and work. According to a University of Arizona research study, students who graduate from entrepreneurship programs are three times more likely to build companies that average annual sales of $50 million and employ 200. **

So how do colleges actually teach entrepreneurship? First by educating students in practical skills that entrepreneurs need, like writing business plans, securing funding from venture capitalists, and understanding accounting and supply chain management. Next, business programs empower students to actually develop their own businesses either within or alongside their courses. Business plan competitions are a common feature of many programs, such as Bentley’s famous Bentley Business Bowl and NYU’s Stern School of Business’ Entrepreneurial Challenge in which students compete for start-up funding. ^ In these competitions, students learn to take risks.  They also learn to fail and try again, a practice that mirrors the life-cycle of entrepreneurs who often start several business ventures that fail before they succeed. By learning tough lessons early on, student entrepreneurs can avoid mistakes and achieve success out in the business world sooner.

It’s not uncommon to find former entrepreneurs-turned-professors at the head of the class. And on many campuses, students interact with successful entrepreneurs still in the field, such as Wharton’s Entrepreneur in Residence Program, which recently hosted Andrew Trader, one of the co-founders of e-gaming app maker Zynga. More than anything though, college and MBA programs give students a laboratory in which to practice the most important entrepreneurial skill—networking.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that successful people rarely get there on their own…a thesis which questions one of the most cherished American ideas: that you can make it simply by pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. His most telling evidence comes in an interview with Bill Gates who claims that had he not been given unique access to computers at a time when they were not common, he would have been  “a highly intelligent, driven, charming person and a successful professional, but that he might not be worth $50 billion.”^^

All this does not lead us to conclude that raw talent plus hard work – along with good timing – are not critical; those factors are always present in entrepreneurial success. However, training in the kinds of skills entrepreneurs use to build their businesses also seems to play an important role.

There may be no better proof of the power of an education in entrepreneurship than the boom in technology over the last 20 years. Two of the most influential world changers in that field are both products of business education: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google.  Both attended the Stanford Business School.


*The Kaufman Foundation:

**Can entrepreneurship be taught? By Patricia B. Gray, FORTUNE Small Business: March 10, 2006

^TechCrunch: How Colleges are Becoming Entrepreneurial by Dan Schawbel

^^ Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

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