Educating Entrepreneurs

Friday, 04/04/2014

By: Drakopoulou-Dodd Sarah,Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship, Academic Director of AHEAD-ALBA Hub for Enterprise and Development and MSc in Entrepreneurship

As the crisis lengthens and deepens, entrepreneurship continues to rises up the industrial, professional, political and economic agenda. It is often seen as a possible solution to at least some proportion of the current catastrophic unemployment, perhaps especially for the young. Yet entrepreneurship is far from being a panacea for all our economic woes; it’s a risky, difficult, lengthy road, that requires a wide variety of competences and knowledge to be successfully implemented. And it’s this need that enterprise education strives to meet, whether through school classes, at Universities, or in special programmes for the would-be entrepreneur. Of course, it’s not only small new organizations that can benefit from enhanced creativity, flexibility, innovation, and the rapid, lean launch of new projects. This kind of mindset is of benefit to many other employers, in the public, private and non-for-profit sectors alike. To some degree, enterprise education is indeed potentially for everyone.

“How can you teach entrepreneurship?” is one of those questions that my colleagues and I get asked all the time. There’s a sense that entrepreneurs are born, not made, and that those who have the “right stuff” neither need nor want enterprise education. Yet decades of research show clearly that there are all sorts of ways in which enterprise and education can fruitfully come together. Three of the most important of these are education about entrepreneurship, education for entrepreneurship, and education through entrepreneurship.

Firstly, there is education ABOUT enterprise, often targeted at the specialist, for advisers, support agency staff, and academics. These kind of programmes and classes concentrate on what we have found out about who becomes an entrepreneur, and why; what processes they engage in; how the environments they help build impact upon them; and what seems to be driving both success and failure.

Secondly, there is education FOR entrepreneurship. The aims of such programmes are to enhance entrepreneurial skills, like thinking creatively, spotting and shaping entrepreneurial ideas, building networks of committed stakeholders, and planning and creating innovative new ventures. It helps, too, to prepare would-be entrepreneurs to manage all the complex functional aspects of their businesses, from HR to finance, and from marketing to operations. Entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurial teams, need to act as all-round managers, and having a toolbox of competences in all the core management areas enables them to do this with skill and professionalism.

Finally, there is education THROUGH entrepreneurship. Here, the main educational philosophy at work is that the best way to learn entrepreneurship, is by doing it. Such action learning often takes the form of  participants carrying out team projects that move them from idea generation, through feasibility analysis, and on to business planning and even venture start-up. Computer simulations, shadowing entrepreneurs, and practicing specific entrepreneurial tasks in the “real word” are also methods that have been used to educate through entrepreneurship.

Although all three forms of enterprise education are vital, it is this learning-by-doing which is currently at the forefront of research and practice in the field. Scholars argue forcefully that there is a real need to move learning “from the zoo to the jungle”, from the classroom out into the entrepreneurial context, and their arguments have been echoed by practitioners, including Richard Branson. A key element in improving learning through entrepreneurship involves exposing participants to the real world of the entrepreneur, and taking them out into the jungle of the modern business environment. Programmes in the “real world” are hard to organize, execute and evaluate. They are unpredictable, outside our immediate control, and involve close relationships with a wide range of stakeholders. As the environment becomes ever more difficult and turbulent, such an approach is often unsettling and challenging for learners, but its rewards are many. Leaving the comfort of our classrooms is also a challenge for educators, of course, but if we are to help fight the crisis, in our own small way, then this is exactly what enterprise educators must increasingly do. It is time for enterprise education to become more entrepreneurial, too.