Can You Really Teach Entrepreneurship? (part 2)

The following article by Andrew Nelson was published on December 13, 2015 in the Register-Guard. 

In my Nov. 22 column, I argued that entrepreneurship can be taught, just like many other skills in life. Based on the feedback I’ve received through emails, phone calls and personal conversations, it seems that many people agree. Yet in these same exchanges, other questions linger: Just how should we go about teaching entrepreneurship? And what’s the point anyway?

To answer these questions, it’s critical to understand what we mean by “entrepreneurship” in the first place. In my classes at the University of Oregon, I offer a broad definition:

Entrepreneurship consists of identifying meaningful problems and executing on novel solutions.

I like this definition because it doesn’t presume that entrepreneurship focuses solely on the creation of new for-profit businesses or startups.

While traditional startups are certainly an important embodiment of entrepreneurship, one also can act as an entrepreneur focused on social or environmental challenges — sometimes termed “social entrepreneurship.” Working within large existing organizations, what some refer to as “corporate entrepreneurship,” is another form. A broad definition leaves space for these different kinds of entrepreneurship to coexist.

Breadth and diversity also characterize the people who can learn entrepreneurship. Many people associate entrepreneurship solely with business and thus conclude that business schools are the natural home for entrepreneurship education and business students are the natural recipients.

The problem — and I say this as a business school professor — is that this view is simply wrong.

If you look under the hood of your favorite entrepreneurial organization, it’s quite unlikely that you’ll find an organization filled with business majors. Rather, you’ll find diverse people with expertise in product design, marketing, law, finance, sales, and diverse subfields of science and engineering — along with countless “creative types” who seem to defy categorization.

In fact, if you look at some of the key people engaged in entrepreneurship education locally, you’ll find the same thing.

Joe Maruschak, RAIN Eugene’s chief startup officer, received his degree in design. Kate Harmon, who oversees undergraduate entrepreneurship programs at the UO business school, holds multiple degrees in art history. I was a music technology major as an undergraduate and my Ph.D. is in engineering.

Entrepreneurship education is not something for business majors only, but rather an approach that can benefit people of all backgrounds, academic disciplines and interests — each can contribute to entrepreneurial endeavors and each can learn to be more effective in them.

Diversity is important in the courses that we offer, too. Thus, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to entrepreneurship education.

For an analogy, think of what you and others like to eat and try to imagine a single dish that will whet everyone’s appetite, every time. It’s much easier to appeal to diverse interests and to foster an appreciation for others through variety.

Similarly, we’ve found that entrepreneurship education is most effective when we offer a wide menu of options. Thus, a given course might include some combination of simulations, case studies, feasibility studies, lectures, discussions, interviews, hands-on exercises and other activities.

By the same token, entrepreneurship education works best when it’s not limited to traditional courses, but also includes internships, mentoring relationships, workshops, seminars, speaker series and other extramural engagements. Beyond the UO, many groups, including Fertilab and RAIN, provide precisely these offerings for community members at large. In fact, I would argue that the RAIN Accelerator, at its core, is really an entrepreneurship education initiative. This diversity of offerings enables students and others to engage with entrepreneurship in different ways and with different levels of commitment, tailoring the content and format to their specific interests.

Finally, there’s a critical question as to what we hope to achieve by teaching entrepreneurship in the first place. Here, different people and different programs will offer different answers. When I wear my hat as a university professor, my primary goal is not to have students leave the university and start a company. In fact, even if that is a particular student’s goal, they’re almost always better off if they gain some work experience first, using it to learn more about an industry and to build a network of contacts.

My goal, first and foremost, is to give students an appreciation of entrepreneurship, including its role in society and how to go about acting as an effective entrepreneur. Some students may carry these skills into existing organizations, leveraging them to develop new initiatives. Some of them may turn these skills toward the pressing social and environmental challenges that we face today. Some of them may start companies that offer new products and services, creating jobs along the way. And some of them may simply find a new appreciation for seeing the world as a place filled with opportunities to solve problems. In my book, they’re all successes, and they all point to the importance of teaching entrepreneurship.

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.