Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

The most difficult part of becoming more entrepreneurial is having to unlearn most of what business courses teach.

Organizations are encouraging their employees to be more entrepreneurial. This includes “free time” to think about innovations and classes on entrepreneurship and innovation. The outcomes of such initiatives are supposed to be new entrepreneurial initiatives, but that rarely happens.

Academic institutions also have tried their hand at teaching entrepreneurship and innovation. Wharton, Stanford, Columbia, Berkley, and other respected institutions have executive education programs on the topic. In their Harvard Business Review (HBR) article on teaching entrepreneurship in a classroom setting, Ashish K. Bhatia and Natalia Levina conclude that the typical business school approach—which includes a long-term market analysis and the development of a business plan—would lead to analysis paralysis, not entrepreneurial success (https://hbr.org/2020/08/can-entrepreneurship-be-taught-in-a-classroom).

Bhatia and Levina do point out that one business school, Darden, “instills in students an appreciation for the power of collaborative innovation by encouraging students to share ideas openly with their peers and tap into diverse insights and perspectives to co-create entrepreneurial ventures.”

TEACHING BUT NOT EXPERIENCING

Ironically, many of the articles about teaching entrepreneurship are written by those who rely on the expertise and experience of university professors, many of whom never actually ventured into entrepreneurship. The very process of becoming a tenured professor has little to do with being an entrepreneur. Instead, it encourages toeing the line while contributing new or disruptive ideas that are recognized by fellow academics as adding to their respective disciplines within clearly defined borders.

As an academic with no business experience or business courses, I sought out the expertise of two senior executives who volunteered to help new business owners. After explaining my business plan, their advice to me was to not waste my time or energy on an idea that “no company would ever be interested in.” Almost 40 years later, my “useless idea” has helped hundreds of Global Fortune 1000 companies in virtually every business sector, with clients headquartered on four continents.

IDENTIFYING ENTREPRENEURS

So what can organizations do to promote entrepreneurship, or as Harvard Business Review authors Amy Gillett and Kristin Babbie Kelterborn refer to as intrapreneurs—defined as champions of innovation and creativity inside their organizations (https://hbsp.harvard.edu/inspiring-minds/how-to-inspire-entrepreneurial-thinking-in-your-students)?

The most difficult part of becoming more entrepreneurial is having to unlearn most of what business courses teach. It may be easier to identify employees whose life experiences exemplify their initiative to take risks and the road less taken.

As Joe Apfelbaum, Google trainer and CEO of digital marketing agency Ajax Union, explains, “The reality is that a true entrepreneur is about change, creation, and much more than business” (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141201164151-6350172-10-words-that-describe-an-entrepreneur/). Research, experience, and insights from Apfelbaum identify those characteristics that describe entrepreneurial success. Hiring people with these characteristics may be easier and more successful than trying to educate someone to change their world view and their learned way of getting ahead.

Here are some of the words used when describing an entrepreneur:

Passion and Commitment: You must see your mission as a core part of who you are. You may not even know why you were “chosen” to do this work. Your commitment will be obvious to those who share your aspirations.

Perseverance and Empathy: You may encounter failures and critics, but keep your focus while inviting criticism and discussions with those who disagree with you. I learn the most from people who are different from me. You must be able to understand the feelings and needs of the people you want to work with. Entrepreneurship is all about connecting with the people you hope to work with and being able to “walk in their shoes.”

Skills: Your value to your organization or client not only depends on the skills you have but on the new skills you need as defined by those you work with.

Hard Work and Humility: Being an entrepreneur is more than working hard and working smart. According to Apfelbaum, “To reach greatness, you need to make yourself small. The more you know, the more you realize how little you know. People who know nothing often think they know everything. Once they learn something, they realize how little they know. That is the moment that they can either become humble and keep learning or they can create a wall with fear.” Great entrepreneurs are confident enough that they can show humility and their vulnerability. I would never go into a meeting with a new client thinking I already know the solution to their issue.

Risk Taking: Entrepreneurs have cautiously optimistic curiosity. They venture into areas not normally traveled. They study overseas; join groups they may not identify with; explore through travel, literature, and online resources; and constantly network to learn what others are doing.

If you have questions or examples of talent development programs that led to entrepreneurial success, e-mail me at: ngoodman@global-dynamics.com

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is a business consultant and speaker who helps organizations and individuals to realize their goals. He is the founder and former president of Global Dynamics, a leader in cultural intelligence and diversity that is now part of Evans Consulting (www.global-dynamics.com). He can be reached at: ngoodman@global-dynamics.com or neal@nealgoodmangroup.com