Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

By Dr. Greg Bier
Many people argue that entrepreneurship cannot be taught. They point to college dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and insist that the ability to break out on one’s own is intrinsic. It isn’t something that you can teach, develop, or hone through experience. It’s natural.
That’s true…and false. While the spirit of an entrepreneur is something that’s intrinsic to an individual, the skills that allow that drive to be successful can be refined and built. Entrepreneurs cannot simply be “idea men,” nor can they be corporate “yes men” who operate only in their specific niche. Entrepreneurs must have both sides of the equation figured out.

Why Entrepreneurship Education is Needed

Students who enter a college classroom must have an entrepreneurial spirit to begin with, if there’s any hope of nurturing and developing the student’s ability to grow in this area. But we lose sight sometimes of what can influence this interest. Some people develop an interest in entrepreneurship as a result of their environment or circumstances. Being unemployed, having a job that’s a bad fit, or seeing deficiencies in the way your job is structured can all lead to the desire to strike out on your own.
A traditional college classroom would, admittedly, struggle to teach students how to be entrepreneurs. Many school programs focus on teaching students business fundamentals: accounting, finance, management, and marketing. Each subject area is taught as an isolated discipline under this model, which is great for producing CPAs, PHRs, and other certified professionals. It’s intended to prepare students for a lifetime of performing a similar type of work.
This made absolute sense in former generations, when people entered the workforce with the intention of staying with one employer until retirement. In today’s marketplace, workers will hold 6-10 varied roles before retirement, few of them with the same company. This new job market has lent credence to the idea that each individual is managing his own career, not the career that his employer has created for him.
Because of this, the newest generation of students is seeing the benefit of being an entrepreneur. These students have ideas, and they’re seeking opportunities to fix things and develop ownership of their own corner of the world. They don’t yet have the skills needed to be successful as entrepreneurs, although they have the desire. This is where the new-school model of business education comes in – entrepreneur schools.

How Entrepreneur-Schools Teach Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship, as we’ve noted, is an interdisciplinary subject. E-Schools connect the academic theories of business subjects along with the practical application of this knowledge. Great E-Schools offer lots of extracurricular activities that allow students to gain experience and develop broader perspectives. These range from entrepreneurship clubs, to pitch competitions, to student-run businesses within the college community itself.
Beyond the typical business subjects, several entrepreneur-specific topics are introduced at E-Schools. These ideas are integrated so the cohesive theme – building and running one’s own business – is never far from thought. As students progress through their coursework, they learn the individual components of creating a business plan; by the time they graduate, they have a completed business plan ready.
Some subjects that E-Schools touch on specifically for the entrepreneur are:

  • Small Business Management
  • Small Business Accounting
  • Venture Creation
  • Venture Capital/Financing
  • Social Entrepreneurship
  • Technical Entrepreneurship
  • Corporate Entrepreneurship

All of this is moot without experience and active participation in entrepreneurial activities. The faculty at E-Schools are entrepreneurs themselves, not simply researchers of the subject. Their expertise and contacts are invaluable for students in obtaining corporate mentorship and internships. Furthermore, the college environment offers business incubators, and good entrepreneurial faculty have organized angel investors or venture capitalists for financing and insight.
Few entrepreneurs are able to secure such beneficial experiences on their own. E-Schools have the express benefit of being able to get students through the hard knocks of entrepreneurship – rejection, lost investments, bad pitches – before the entrepreneur has to work through it on her own. This reduces the feeling of defeat and enhances the confidence of the business pioneer.

It is quite atypical to most educational experiences, in a very positive way.

One excellent example of a program that truly develops entrepreneurs can be found at the University of Missouri. In one semester, the school’s Entrepreneurship Alliance hosts a pitch retreat for its students, co-sponsors a Start-Up Weekend for aspiring business owners, and endorses a seed grant competition for $18,000 in seed money. In addition to numerous pitch competitions, there are other opportunities for the students to make their ideas known; one student, Mallory VanWaarde, won a State Farm Marketing & Sales Competition, while two others, Matt Kamp and Josh Johnson, had their pitch-focused YouTube video covered by a local NBC affiliate. Zach Hockett, the president of the Entrepreneurship Alliance, said, “50% of the class isn’t actually in a classroom, which is a huge plus for me. It is quite atypical to most educational experiences, in a very positive way. We have had the ability to go to lunches and have one-on-one discussions with CEOs of multi-million dollar companies that people would otherwise have to pay a lot of money to consult with.”
The activities outside the classroom are truly what make a difference. The Entrepreneurship Alliance builds confidence in their students by bringing them to a 60 foot climbing tower and zip line and having them work together and build each other’s confidence enough to tackle the obstacles. Teaching confidence through completing obstacles is just one part of the equation. Students have access to a prototyping machine that can help give them the confidence they need in pitch competitions by giving them that push with a real life prototype to show during a competition. Student Jessica Cui created a prototype for her adjustable height shoe that allowed her to prevail at the Seed Grant competition.
We need entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs and small business owners create jobs, innovate and keep our economy running. So we know that entrepreneurs are needed, so now we need to make them. While it’s true that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs never would have been as successful without an innate entrepreneurial spirit, both surely learned many aspects the hard way. E-Schools instill this knowledge in students so they are several steps ahead of the competition when they start out. While their drive cannot be taught, entrepreneurs’ creativity and efficiency is surely enhanced by the college E-School experience. Any true entrepreneur would tip his hat to that.

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1 Comment


Great article Greg!
I truly believe that entrepreneurial skills and attitudes can be learned, and that exposure to entrepreneurship education can inspire an individual to start their own business.

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