14 Aug

The paradox of teaching “entrepreneurship”

I watched a video on entrepreneurship yesterday.

Well, actually, I only watched the first 10 minutes of the video – it was an hour long.

During those first 10 minutes, the very well-intentioned university professor attempted to intellectually conceptualize entrepreneurship and say something meaningful.

I gave up after 10 minutes of watching him struggle to bridge the gap between what he wanted to do and what entrepreneurship is.   He wanted to make something active into something passive.

The paradox of teaching “entrepreneurship”

Entrepreneur:  “A person who organizes and manages…”   (Dictionary.com)

There are two verbs in this definition: “organize” and “manage”.

These are active.  You organize and manage.  You do these things.

And you get good at organizing and managing as an entrepreneur by practicing organizing and managing. By independently daring to do the organizing and managing.  No-one gives you permission.  You answer to no-one. You initiate and do them yourself.

Like riding a bike, you can’t really study entrepreneurship in a way that makes it passive.  Well you, can. And you can study how to ride a bike, can’t you?

But in the end, you learn to ride a bike by…riding a bike.

And you learn entrepreneurship by…organizing and managing a business.

Which leads to the paradox:  Can you teach entrepreneurship?

Lorne Fingarson figured out how to teach entrepreneurship.

Homage:  Thank you, Lorne Fingarson, for inviting me to develop “curriculum” and “teach” in the Business Incubator Program at BCIT – The British Columbia Institute of Technology – from 1991-1993.

Lorne figured it out.  He convinced BCIT to deliver a program where entrepreneurs would get the learning and support they needed to increase their chances of startup success. His stats showed that with incubator support, he could get the success rate of business startups from 10-20% up to 60-70%.

But my “curriculum” and “teaching” in the program were anything but normal “university” lecturing.  Instead, at BCIT I supported entrepreneurs in learning the financial and marketing skills they needed for their businesses to be successful.  Not by lecturing, but by coaching them during their active “organizing” and “managing” of their businesses.

And that is the key difference:  The focus was on the entrepreneur and their business, not on me and my knowledge.

Student centered learning – the “flipped classroom”

When I first took a case-based business course during my undergrad, I was hooked.  Cases opened my mind to how the world works and gave me a chance to solve real problems. My MBA was entirely case-based.

And when we actually had to “do” a business in another undergrad course – actually make a business happen – I was ecstatic.

It is no wonder, then, that my teaching these last 23 years has been student centered.

In Dubai I led a team of faculty in creating something unique:  An entrepreneurship-based e-business bachelor degree program.  With the brilliant Tony Degazon in the co-pilot seat, we pushed and pushed to see how much we could get away with in a post-secondary institution.

Could we create an incubator-style program where students created online businesses?

We did!  And what an amazing Program!  From laying out their “classroom” (including painting the room and laying out the “office”) to choosing their own businesses that they actually started, our students were at the center of the learning.  This was the true student-centered, flipped classroom.

And it worked.

Back in Canada after 6-1/2 year in Dubai, I did two things:  Teach business part-time at a university and start my own businesses.

I wanted to organize and manage my own businesses for the sheer joy of being an entrepreneur and I wanted to share my passion for “doing entrepreneurship” in the higher-ed classroom.

The organizing and managing of my own businesses has been a wonderful journey, and often quite profitable.

The entrepreneurship “teaching”?

Kind of “hit and miss”.

Entrepreneurship and universities:  An awkward fit

Despite my best intentions, the fit was never a strong one between entrepreneurship – an active way of doing business – and the more passive study of business, as universities are set up to do.

Oh, I write lots of case studies for universities, colleges, and corporate trainers all over the world.

And in years past I got away with teaching an international marketing course primarily through my students creating real international businesses in their 14 weeks in the course. And again, amazing outcomes resulted.  One student team created such a successful business that they had to shut it down to finish their studies – it would take too much of their time.  In the end, the defacto team leader told me that she wanted to get her MBA because she wanted to work in a corporation, not run her own business.

A successful startup business...in an MBA Program marketing course

A successful startup business…in an MBA Program marketing course

 

(Oh the sometimes startling agony in being a teacher:  The most successful online venture from all the teams in all the running of the course and the business gets shut down because it was too successful and not what the student wanted to do!)

In the end, universities are set up to study things, not do things.  And no slight intended: The world needs things studied.  But so does entrepreneurship need a student-centred or “flipped classroom” approach to succeed. Perhaps not something that hundreds of years of history, process, and tradition, called the university model, is designed to support well.

We need more Lorne Fingarsons and more business incubators

Start-up weekends“, Lorne Fingarson,  business incubators, community support,  and $100 Startup’s Chris Guillebeau and his World Domination Summit entrepreneurial culture creation.

These are events, people, infrastructure, and cultures where entrepreneurship happens and where it can be “taught”.

We need more of these.

Bring it on!

A final note:

Lorne and his wife Pat keep on giving to BCIT.  Inspirational.