Entrepreneurship: It’s in the teaching

By Editor June 1, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following article is part of a new series of guest articles on StartUp Beat by experts on startups/entrepreneurship who have something to say about any and all things related to the technology startup world. This article is not a sponsor post and the writer has not paid for space on StartUp Beat. This series is intended to serve as a point of discussion and consideration of issues that affect the technology startup sector.

By Doug Mellinger

Douglas Mellinger is Vice-Chairman and Co-founder of Foundation Source and Trustee at Cogswell College.

Amidst a sea of graduations occurring this month, many graduates who majored in art, science, engineering, and other non-business disciplines are the ones most likely to start their own businesses. The irony is they most likely did not receive formal business training because those courses and experiences were housed in their colleges’ business school and not their own departments. So when they start their own venture they must become a quick study in understanding the elements that make a business successful.

Most entrepreneurs don’t come from the business school world and have had no formal business training. In many cases, learning how to project profit and losses, balancing the books, and creating a business plan are all done through trial and error. This experience could be different if more colleges were focused on providing every student with the basic entrepreneurial skills to start their own business regardless of their major. 

A new national poll on entrepreneurship and education cites this disconnect, finding that colleges are not focused enough on teaching the vital entrepreneurial skills American students need to compete globally. The poll also found that colleges should implement more practical programs that enable them to create businesses while still in school.

The poll by Zogby/463 and commissioned by Cogswell College, cites that two out of three Americans say that U.S. schools are not focused enough on providing entrepreneurial skills. The survey of 2,141 Americans comes as millions of students graduate this spring and prepare to enter the workforce. But they enter the workforce at a time of economic uncertainty and increasing global competition.

Americans also say that traditional teaching methods aren’t the way to teach entrepreneurial skills. Overall, 73 percent report the best way to teach a student to become an entrepreneur is to enable them to create businesses or intern in startups. And 76 percent said that students launching a business while still in college will make them more successful in creating jobs and opportunities after graduation.

Other findings from the Zogby/463 survey include:

•    Only one in 20 Americans currently think that college is where students become entrepreneurs. That may be due to the current model of providing students with principles of business management rather than hands-on opportunities creating and growing businesses. For example, most Americans (63 percent) think entrepreneurial skills are most learned from work experiences. 

•    Seventy-nine percent say that having entrepreneurial skills is important for graduates to land a job.

•    Among the critical 18-24 age group:

-Sixty-two percent said the most effective way to teach someone to become an entrepreneur was by creating a small business or interning in a start-up. Only 2 percent said it was through class work and lectures.

-Sixty-nine percent said that work experience is where most learn the skills to become an entrepreneur.

-Fifty-seven percent said that launching companies in college would make them more successful in creating companies and jobs after graduation.

-Ninety-three percent said that entrepreneurship is “very important” to the future competitiveness of the American economy.

As evidenced by the polling, students aren’t prepared because they don’t know what a successful company even looks like when they graduate. And since most graduates are completely unprepared to start a business their first venture is more likely to fail because they don’t have the skills they need.

In terms of constructive criticism, the figure that colleges need to pay attention to most is that 62 percent of Americans believe creating a venture while in college is the best way to learn entrepreneurial skills. Attaining the right skills to start a business is possible if schools focus more on providing the basic know-how and hands on experience with creating a business.

Cogswell College is providing such experiences through its entrepreneurship program that builds in unique entrepreneurial residencies. Cogswell’s E-Tours take students through dozens of entrepreneurial companies and conducts exploratory meetings with founding teams. Each student experiences two internships with entrepreneurial companies, consisting of over 150 hours in each of the innovative companies. Students also join entrepreneurial forums to provide the beginning of a lifelong support and peer learning network. And, as a capstone course, students launch their own products, services or ventures as a part of their coursework during their final year of school.

The benefit here is that the program shapes students into entrepreneurs before they graduate, which puts them a step ahead. It also allows them to observe the right and wrong ways to go about starting a business by dealing and participating in real-world issues.

While Cogswell is among the few examples of colleges that offer entrepreneurial programs, there should be many more similar programs. Colleges and universities are always evolving to offer programs for in-demand fields and building entrepreneurial training into those offerings should be essential.

We need to reinvent the way we prepare our students to enter the business world by enabling them to start and run businesses while in school. While some argue that an entrepreneur is born with a specific skill-set, a successful entrepreneur can be made through a structured educational experience that provides the know-how to build the best possible venture.