You can’t teach entrepreneurship! is the common response to this suggestion. It’s as if you were suggesting that everyone be taught to run as fast as Usain Bolt or play football like Lionel Messi. Entrepreneurs are born not made it’s claimed. Being an entrepreneur is in your blood!
Well, that all depends on what you mean by teaching entrepreneurship. It doesn’t have to mean reinventing people, turning them into another Steve Jobs or that Dyson guy who invents new hoovers every second week.
Business ideas are like books; just as everyone has an idea for a book, everyone has an idea for a business at some time. So why aren’t we all furiously setting up businesses? It’s not because we don’t have some sort of mysterious entrepreneurial mind-set, it’s because most of us haven’t the faintest idea about how one goes from an idea to a potentially profit-making company. We’re scared of it. How can anyone seriously consider setting up a business when they don’t even know where to start; when they have no capacity to assess the level of work and commitment involved and, crucially, when they cannot assess the challenges and risks in front of them. It is no mystery as to why entrepreneurs tend to be serial entrepreneurs. It’s not that being an entrepreneur is some sort of innate compulsion; it’s the fact that once you know how to do it, you are more likely to do it again. (A bit like murder apparently.) It’s also no mystery as to why entrepreneurship tends to run in families. It’s not that there is a gene for being an entrepreneur; it’s merely that if you grow up in a business-oriented family, you probably acquire a good deal of knowledge and wisdom about the business world, not to mention mentoring. The world of business will not scare you and you will be far more likely to take the plunge.
Expecting people to be entrepreneurial without their knowing anything about the actual process of creating a business is like expecting people to do a bungee jump in the pitch dark. So when I say that we should teach entrepreneurship, what I mean is that we need to ensure that students know and understand enough about the start-up process (and business generally) that they might seriously consider acting on their ideas rather than forgetting about them and opting for the devil they know.
A problem here is that many academics see the word ‘entrepreneurship’ as reflecting an ethos that is counter to the true spirit of academia, seeing it as merely serving the needs of capitalism. But if that is the way you think about it, you are not being logical in my view. Many accepted academic disciplines exist not because they represent the search for some sort of eternal truth, rather they owe their very existence to the fact that we human beings have created societies and cultures that need to be understood and managed. The raison d’etre of engineering or economics or food science is that they, in some sense, arise from the activities of humanity and ultimately serve the needs of humanity. I develop membrane filtration design equations not because they have any innate value but because I hope they will be used by practicing engineers. I’m still doing valid academic work in my view. Likewise, somebody who might be teaching and researching in the area of entrepreneurship is doing work that is not inherently inferior to the person researching the works of Joyce or the physicist studying the earliest picoseconds of the universe. In fact, many fields that might not be seen as ‘academic’ actually pose hugely challenging, multidisciplinary problems that provide fantastic opportunities for study.
I have been sceptical about much of this entrepreneurial stuff for a long time but I’ve done an Eamon Dunphy and come around to the view that unless the country gets to a situation where the average citizen is familiar with the basic processes of business, we will always rely on others to do our job creation for us. Pumping money into research might create more high tech ideas that sound amazing, but ideas are one thing and businesses are another.
We need to start teaching our students about how to be entrepreneurs and that is not the same as trying to teach them to be entrepreneurs. Hopefully, though, doing the former will result in the latter.