In a scene in the 2010 movie “The Social Network,” Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University, tells two students, “Everyone at Harvard is inventing something. Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than finding a job.”
This is good advice, and an idea somewhat underrepresented in higher education today. Simply stated, it’s a matter of teaching entrepreneurship, the primary mission of Cathy Ashmore, executive director of the Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education.
“There are only two kinds of people you can work for, someone else and for yourself, and we forget to teach people how they can create their own business and work for themselves,” Ashmore said.
But according to Patricia Greene, professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College, an emphasis within teaching entrepreneurship on encouraging students to start a business is part of what’s limiting it. “The idea of entrepreneurship as starting a small business is the smallest definition you could possibly use,” Greene said. “This is a very bound-up approach; an important approach, but still bounded. Having said that, I absolutely think the skill set of starting and growing businesses is part of it as well and that needs to be a part of any education that has anything to do with how people are going to spend the rest of their lives.”
According to Greene, every school should have its own definition of what entrepreneurship means to it and build from there. Greene herself defines entrepreneurship as a mindset and skill set that looks at opportunities, identifies resources and uses leadership to combine these elements and create something of value.
She allows that this is difficult to teach. They key to doing so, she said, is breaking down students’ old habits and assumptions about what is possible. Students need “to learn to take time to look around the world and practice and experiment and know that not everything is going to work the first time and that’s OK; to realize that innovation is more than just about innovative products or services, it’s also about innovative markets, new business models, those types of things,” she said. “All those things break down into skills – teachable, trainable skills. [They] really come from questioning everything you see; [learning to] look at the world with a different set of eyes. ”
Ashmore also stressed that to become entrepreneurial, students need to be taught that it’s OK to try and fail. “You can’t name an industry where there are no entrepreneurs, and yet we focus on how many of them fail, rather than on providing them with the skills and the motivation and a sense of their opportunities as they go through school,” she said.
A large obstacle Ashmore cited in teaching students to be entrepreneurial is most teachers are inexperienced in this area. “The major challenge from our perspective is that most teachers have never been an entrepreneur, nor have they been provided with resources or motivation to teach entrepreneurship, and they have very full curriculum schedules and lots of expectations of what they should teach,” she said. “Our answer is to provide as many resources as possible and opportunities for teachers to learn, because students certainly indicate an interest in becoming entrepreneurs, but their major comment is they don’t have any way to learn about it while they’re in school.”
The Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education believes entrepreneurship education should be a lifelong process that begins before college; in high school, middle school, perhaps even elementary school. Greene suggests it should start even earlier.
“Kindergarten teachers need to understand it the most so that when they talk to little kids about what they want to be when they grow up, it becomes part of the whole conversation,” Greene said. “It needs to be an option when people think about how they’re going to create their lives.”
Ashmore said, “It’s a whole series of experiences that enable you to see that it’s possible to find your own personal passions and develop the skills, connections and experiences as you go through your career building so that you have a sense of where you’re going.”
Daniel Margolis is managing editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.