Can You Really Teach Entrepreneurship? (part 1)

The following article by Andrew Nelson was published on November 22, 2015 in the Register-Guard. 

Seven years ago, shortly after my wife and I moved to Eugene from Silicon Valley, I attended a party with some new neighbors. The conversation naturally turned to “What do you do?” I eagerly responded that I was a professor in the business school tasked with teaching entrepreneurship. With a deadpan expression, my neighbor Bill replied, “You can’t teach entrepreneurship. I’ve run my own business for 20 years and I can tell you first hand that entrepreneurship is not something you can learn in a classroom.”

Bill isn’t alone. In fact, perhaps the most common question that I hear as I interact with a wide array of people in our community is some variant of, “Can you really teach entrepreneurship?” In my experience, three different assumptions typically underlie this question.

The first assumption is that entrepreneurship is some sort of inherited trait. Great entrepreneurs, the logic goes, are akin to great athletes and great musicians. They are a rare breed born with a skill. Attempting to “teach” entrepreneurship is akin to teaching one to be “taller” – pointless. Indeed, some scholars have gone so far as to search for an entrepreneurial “gene.” Yet this argument seems to miss the point that while an innate musical ability may exist, we still have music education programs and conservatories; while Marcus Mariotas are indeed a rare breed, we still have training facilities for athletes. Entrepreneurship is no different. As Tom Byers, a Stanford entrepreneurship professor who helped to launch Symantec, puts it, “Can entrepreneurship be taught? Hell yes, because entrepreneurs can learn. It’s that simple.”

A second objection points to the many successful entrepreneurs who did not receive university training, or who dropped out partway through their programs, and nonetheless went on to great success. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg all come to mind. Yet, the founders of Instagram, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, and Google – all of whom have university degrees – do not receive a mention.

In fact, the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs have college degrees (They’re also older than many people realize — data from the Kauffman Foundation indicate that the average entrepreneur is 39 years old, not the twenty-something that typically appears in the media). Pointing to Bill Gates as proof that entrepreneurship education isn’t valuable is akin to citing your neighbor who won the lottery as proof that retirement planning isn’t valuable — it’s empirically true, yet statistically misleading. Just as no one would recommend purchasing lottery tickets as the best means to achieve financial security, the existence of successful entrepreneurs without entrepreneurship education is not proof that entrepreneurship education isn’t important.

Finally, a third point of resistance is more subtle and presumes that, yes, entrepreneurs can learn, but that learning is best done “on the job” and not by sitting in a classroom. I’m sympathetic to this point. In fact, I often note the irony that my students come to learn about a field that is based on creativity, disruption and novelty, and yet the fundamental course structure encourages them to arrive at the same appointed time and days, and to sit in straight rows.

Yet, the suggestion that entrepreneurship and coursework are incompatible is flawed. For those readers who remember large lecture courses in which a few hundred students cram into an auditorium to receive the “wisdom” of a professor, let me put a different picture in your head. “Teaching” entrepreneurship often takes a different form.

In the classes I’ve taught both at Stanford and the University of Oregon, the approach leverages a mixture of lectures that present overarching lessons and frameworks, guest speakers and media clips that offer “real world” insights, and hands-on exercises that enable students to practice fundamental skills. For example, one fundamental skill lies in observing existing business and social arrangements and identifying situations that could be improved.

So, early in the term, I send my students out to observe the location of their choice and to take careful notes on the problems they observe. They quickly discover that problems – and, therefore, opportunities – are everywhere.

Another fundamental skill lies in taking scarce resources and leveraging them into something much more substantial. So, I give each student team $5 and instruct them to turn it into more “value” before our next class. A couple years ago, one team took this charge and used the $5 to purchase a hot chili pepper. Then, they auctioned off the rights to force one team member to eat this pepper in front of the class, with the proceeds from the auction to be donated to Food for Lane County. Their creativity resulted in a $271 donation and a key lesson learned about finding novel opportunities in common resources.

Can hands-on exercises, advice-filled tales from experienced leaders, and rigorous academic research convey the full depth and richness of an entrepreneurial experience? No way. But can they improve our students’ understanding of key entrepreneurial skills and potential pitfalls to avoid in building a new organization? Absolutely.

Back to the neighborhood party: “Bill,” I asked, “have you ever made a mistake when running your business?” “More than I can count,” he replied, “and some ridiculous things, too.” Bill, I persisted, “Do you ever wish that you’d had the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes and to hone your skills with a bit more guidance and input?” “Ah, yes,” he smiled.

That’s exactly what we do when we teach entrepreneurship.

Continue reading: Can you really teach entrepreneurship (part 2)

Andrew Nelson is associate professor of management at University of Oregon and executive director of the UO’s RAIN activities. Prior to joining the University of Oregon, he taught entrepreneurship for five years at Stanford, where he received his Ph.D.