Entrepreneurship · Education

Can entrepreneurship be taught?

Eleanor Carman Incoming BLP Sales Associate at LinkedIn

May 7th, 2015

Many universities across the U.S. have started offering an entrepreneurship major/minor. The theme I hear from most entrepreneurs is that you really learn as you go.  And if these skills can't be learned, then what is the value of these programs?

Varun Mehta CEO of Disqovery

May 7th, 2015

"Learn by doing," right?

During my MBA at HBS both the required and elective classes had some entrepreneurial elements to them. There were a few things that we did:
  • We read cases about startup founders, highlighting specific interpersonal and business challenges that they faced and how they faced them.
  • We learned about both what entrepreneurs have in common with each other, and we learned how entrepreneurship comes in many different forms.
  • We were put into teams with decent startup capital and given the task of forming revenue-generating businesses by the end of the semester.
What is the value? For some it was a way to try working in an ambiguous, powerless environment while still being safe (i.e. still in school). For others it was a way to find likeminded individuals and begin building teams or support networks. And for people like me, it was inspiration to try it all for real and begin incubating a startup.

If you want more details on these things, I'm happy to provide it.

Patrick Larsen Defense Technology Startup and Helping Veterans, LION

May 7th, 2015

I think this is a total misnomer. 
Everything is taught. Entrepreneurship is taught. So is art, music, sports, soft skills. 
Some people are autodidacts- they learn from doing and they learn early so it appears that they were "born" with it but if you took 3 yr old Steve Jobs and put him on a desert island- he wouldn't have become the greatest pitch man of all time.
Most top MBA programs have excellent entrepreneurship programs. 
You can learn so much online from a staggering large number of sites.

You can learn from mentors, competitors, your employees. From books, videos, walking down the street. You can learn and be taught and you can teach entrepreneurship.
This is the Growth mentality. See the book "Mindset" by Carol Dweck. http://amzn.com/0345472322

People think you have to be a natural because people are afraid of failure, afraid of commitment and being in it for the long run regardless of how many setback and disappointments you might have. They are afraid to try and get confirmation that they weren't good enough (but really- they just weren't good enough right then- given all the conditions of the world to include luck). 

The problem with MBA programs is they saddle you with debt. This does two things. 
1. It gives you an easy road to a corporate career. They accounting and finance you learned is applicable to a company with profits, stable cash flows, known fixed costs, accurate forecasting...That's not a startup. 
2. It saddles you with debt (generally). That makes taking a risk much, much more scary. It also means that if you fail once- you probably need to get a job- instead of living on someone's couch and continuing to try, fail, learn, iterate. You can't default on this debt. I suggest moving to Thailand or Vietnam and pursuing your business passions. 

So, absolutely you can learn Entrepreneurship in a formal setting. An MBA allows you to raise money. It earns people's trust. It gives you rigorous, critical thinking skills and the ability to plan. 

Everything is a sample size of one. It doesn't matter if an MBA is good for others or not. Is it good for you? Is the school right? The path right? The time right? Your head right? Your motivation right? Will you keep trying? If so, you'll make it and you'll be able to point back at all the things you learned from your MBA that helped you- or your mentors, competition, books, etc. 

Good luck. Commit to climbing the mountain. It's steep, but the view is worth it.

Peter Kestenbaum Advisor, Investor, Mentor to Emerging firms

May 7th, 2015

Grinding has its value but to be a bit controversial many of the questions you see on this forum would never come from some of the kids we work with.. for example funding questions today... how do I find angels, what do I tell them, what will my terms look like, what do they look for before they will fund me (or 8 or 10 different profile companies ), what is the minimum I need to have for them given the profile I have... you get exposed to that...  not only from folks who "teach" but from a parade of angels that get brought in to guest lecture...  same for many other disciplines...start up lawyers, local successful founders who exited and so on...    but it takes 3 or 4 semesters... .   agree on the cost of an MBA....  the entrepreneurship programs are sometimes separate certificate programs so you paying for 9 or 12 credits..   but again the school has to have a very specific program....  its alot less academic but very hands on and experiential 

John Richards

May 7th, 2015

After my company went public and I sort of retired, I was pulled out of that retirement to become an entrepreneurship professor at BYU.  After more than a decade of teaching and building the program, BYU became ranked #3 and I never had a class where 5 years later at least 1 or 2 of the students hadn't created a multi-million dollar company.  Universities are very good for collisions, including "been there, done that" professional faculty colliding with bright, ambitious young people.  Our best entrepreneurs were often drop outs.  So, the answer is: entrepreneurial education impacts hundreds of thousands of students and sets them on a course for entrepreneurial success -- but in the end it's the actual climbing up the mountain that makes the entrepreneur.  I think entrepreneurial education is like a helicopter and places the entrepreneur a little higher up the mountain to start the climb.  Who gets to the summit first or reaches the highest summit, there are way too many factors for this discussion!  It should be noted that of all the great tech companies whose software or products we use everyday of the past decade, many were started on college campuses by students.  Note: I may be biased because I am an entrepreneurship professor (rated in Top 25 in 2013).

John Richards

May 8th, 2015

There have been some good comments.  So, I am making another comment.

This is not a simple issue.  It's quite complex.  The teaching of entrepreneurship works when the stars align and at the right moment in the student's life he/she gets exposed to information that inspires and enlightens, and unleashes the entrepreneur within (soft skills emerge - they probably can't be "taught" but "identified and released") and then hard skills can be taught because experienced mentors share war stories and the student learns processes.

The commenter who mentioned that there are different types of entrepreneurs (DNA) is dead-on.  The commenter who shared that even K-12 needs introduction to entrepreneurship brings out an important point.  Over the past 13+ years of teaching at a collegiate level, I learned that every school needs two basic courses:

1.  "Introduction to Entrepreneurship" - a course that introduces freshmen and sophomore (early in collegiate career) to entrepreneurship by helping them discover who they are and what they want out of life, what is possible if they learn how to take charge of their life and grab the brass ring.  I have had so many mediocre students find my Intro class and it revolutionizes their lives, saying things like, "I never knew this part of the world existed!  I have felt lost my entire life, but played the game best I could - and now I feel like I have found home and a direction that makes me excited to get up every day."  Others in the Intro class find out they loathe being an entrepreneur - a great thing to find out while young.  A class like this gets superstars-in-the-making on the right path.

2.  "LaunchPad" - a course where students actually start and work on a scalable venture.  Not a grass-mowing business, but a truly scalable venture.  In one semester they do the lean startup customer validation process and get an MVP going and pitch to investors as the final exam.  One of my students a few years ago repeated my class 3 times.  Was he a great academic student?  No!  I asked him why he was back, and he said: "I am here for an education, not a degree."  He started a company the first class - it failed.  He started a company the second time and continued it through the third time -- and that company attained 80 million users and sold to SnapChat for $53 million late last year -- quite an exit in less than 4 years.  I actually have quite a few stories like that.  The combination of what they are taught and what they learn within the proclivities of their own make-up is the combustible recipe for success.  Sadly, it's impossible to predict which student will emerge as a superstar.  If we could figure that out, what a world it would be!  Even with all my experience, I can't tell you if it's the shy one who sits in the front row, or the hipster designer, or the buttoned-up left-brained detail person who will create the next great venture -- I've seen all types fail and succeed.  There is a lot of convergence of timing and serendipity - and the same person could get the same teaching at different times in his/her life and have totally different outcomes.

I like the commenter who inferred there should be more at the K-12 levels.  Putting an Intro class in at the high school level would change America.  Very, very few high schools have it.  They keep pushing people through the test-taking mill and pushing out middle management suck-ups as they meander through college, causing lots of confusion and heartache.  Memorizing material for standardized tests is an odd paradigm now that all of us can get the knowledge we need within seconds via the web.  It made more sense when knowledge was hard to obtain.  Higher education is broken.  With the tenure system and the machine that takes 10% annual rate increases while the product (graduating students getting jobs) is falling to abysmal lows.  Take coder skills.  CS Depts at universities are not producing the right product, but 12-week courses (dev bootcamps) have 100% placement with high starting salaries.  There are a lot of majors which might be better served this way, including entrepreneurship.

Julien Fruchier Founder at Republic of Change

May 7th, 2015

Both my parents are business owners. Doing anything but entrepreneurship makes me feel like a fish out of water. From that standpoint, I'm as "born an entrepreneur" as you can get. Yet... 

Before I graduated highschool, I was on my third business and had decided not to go to school. After a year and a half, I realized that the right program could accelerate my understanding of business. I did a 4-year program in 2 years and I'm glad I did. I don't remember much about what I learned but I came out of it with a much broader perspective and it was helpful during my formative years as an entrepreneur. 

To answer your question, I'm glad I did school and I did learn about business but entrepreneurship is all about hustle. It requires discipline, creativity, being okay flying without a safety net and working hard with zero guarantees that you'll ever see the fruits of your labor. That can't be taught in school. You get that from your family, from self experimentation and from the lessons of other entrepreneurs.  

Robert Eikelboom Empowering the Powerless

May 7th, 2015

The great advantage of Universities is that they offer their students a theoretical overview of 'all' the elements involved in entrepreneurship. That is an important framework for everybody to order your own ideas. It is not decisive for success. But then again no individual element is. As long as people realize there are no fixed rules, no specific traits, or secret methods. What worked for Jobs might not work for Gadella or you. Universities should go on teaching. You and me should keep on grinding it till a moment of luck breaks open the market in a big way. 

Madhu Chamarty

May 7th, 2015

I've been part of 2 startups, one as an early employee, and the other as a co-founder. Prior to that, I was very academically minded, i.e. valuing theory over execution or implementation - I went to graduate school and also worked in management consulting, building frameworks and proposing (theoretical) solutions. 

As I got into various aspects of working at a startup, and at various stages of two B2B startups, I slowly started realizing the power of implementation and the power of practice/getting one's hands dirty. During this same period (2005-2014), Silicon Valley, and a few other geos too, saw an explosion of popularity for 'entrepreneurship schools'. At first I was sceptical, thinking that every entrepreneur's journey is unique and no aspect of building a company can really be codified. 

However, my views changed over the years. I have come to realize that any discipline / practice / craft can be taught to a great extent. To get a bit philosophical: art (of startups) has inherent science to it (and vice versa). How to plan for market validation, how to prepare to scale, how to hire at various stages of growth, how to prepare for market feedback, how to balance roadmap priorities, all have an element of past experience and pattern recognition to them. These experiences from various startups can be gathered, assessed, classified, and shared to the next generation of budding entrepreneurs.

What is something that cannot really be taught, in my opinion, is how an entrepreneur traverses their journey, having learned all of this "conventional wisdom". Each entrepreneur's how tends to be the most personal, most nuanced, and most 'hard to replicate' skill in entrepreneurship. This is so tied to each person's personality. Not every person will solve a problem the same way Steve Jobs did, or start a company the same way Zuckerberg did. They may take notes on how these guys did what they did, but at the end, each individual's success is driven by their gut feel, their personality, their ability to think on their feet in the face of uncertainty, etc. These personal traits are what I mean by how.

The 'what' can be taught, but the 'how' will likely come from within :)

Ethan Dreilinger Here, there and everywhere. Evangelizing digital strategy. Always connected, always ready.

May 7th, 2015

Entrepreneurship is an experIence not a lesson. You can learn the principles. But you need to experience the lessons.  - Sent from from my mobile. Please excuse any typos.

Max Aulakh DoD-built Cybersecurity Leader | Compliance Expert | Mission-Critical IT Operations | Dedicated to Protecting You!

May 7th, 2015

Great responses! I think anything can be taught including entrepreneurship however being successful in it is an entirely different thing.