August 31, 2015

Entrepreneurship Education Reimagined

By: ELIstaff

Originally posted on the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) blog on August 28, 2015. This has since been removed.

In today’s highly dynamic, interconnected world, the need to encourage and support entrepreneurial thinking at all levels of society including public, private, and non-profit sectors is rapidly becoming a global imperative. Policymakers from the White House to the World Economic Forum have identified entrepreneurship education as essential for building the societies of the future, stating; “Entrepreneurship education is essential for developing the human capital necessary for the society of the future. It is not enough to add entrepreneurship on the perimeter – it needs to be central to the way education operates.”

And yet, while entrepreneurship education initiatives permeate college and university campuses, and small business development centers, the entrepreneurial mindset is not well understood, and consequently our ability to meet this urgent demand is severely limited in terms of both efficacy and scope.

For most the term “entrepreneurship” is associated with starting a business and much of our efforts are focused on venture-backed, high growth firms. Yet very few businesses actually start this way and some have begun to express growing concerns over programs that are focused primarily on “high-tech, fast-growth companies, pushing students toward competitions and ventures prematurely or inappropriately.”

Others are focused on small business initiatives that encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to develop business plans and financial projections in the hopes of acquiring small business loans. Yet, while these skills may be important for managing an existing business with a proven product or service, they often inhibit the entrepreneurial process – the process of searching for a problem-solution fit.

And it goes without saying the search process requires search skills – skills that anyone can learn to develop, yet skills that have historically been undervalued, overlooked or ignored.

Searching begins with curiosity and observation, awareness, and understanding of the broader world around us. Searching requires empathy, the ability to identify and solve problems within highly ambiguous, resource-constrained circumstances.

Searching requires us to think critically, to formulate hypotheses and test assumptions. It requires us to experiment, to be self-directed and resilient; to learn from experience, to reflect, to self-regulate, and to adapt.

For most, searching requires us to think and act in unfamiliar ways. It requires us to deviate from social and cultural norms and to challenge the status quo. In short, searching requires us to think and act when the rules are unknown, where no one is in charge, and no one is coming to the rescue.

Yet these conditions rarely exist within our current systems of education and organizational structures and consequently, we rarely get the chance to develop and hone entrepreneurial attitudes, behaviors, and skills.

Equally important is what the search process does not require. Searching for a problem-solution fit does not require an outgoing personality or unique traits. It does not require an interest in technology, computer science, or an MBA. Searching does not require a big idea with obvious high growth potential, access to venture capital or small business loans. Nor does it require us to quit our job and expose ourselves to enormous risks. In fact, the process of searching for a problem-solution fit does not require an interest in starting a business at all.

Searching simply requires what Harvard’s Clayton Christensen refers to as discovery skills – skills that have become necessary for anyone to thrive in today’s interconnected, rapidly changing world, whether they endeavor to work within an established organization or create something new.

An entrepreneurial mindset can empower ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. It offers a new framework for thinking and acting that exposes opportunities within any set of circumstances, within any domain. Entrepreneurial thinking can lift people from poverty, help build vibrant new economies and empower the next generation to solve the greatest challenges of our time. Yet, as Albert Einstein famously said, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.

If we are to encourage and support entrepreneurial thinking at all levels of society, we must first define entrepreneurship in a way that anyone can embrace. If we are to shift entrepreneurship from the perimeter to the core of the way education operates, we must examine the institutional and organizational factors that inhibit the development of entrepreneurial attitudes, behaviors, and skills.

We must also recognize that, while not every student aspires to manage a business or start a high-growth firm, we all want to be engaged in work that matters, to be self-directed, and to have an opportunity to apply our interest and abilities to something greater than ourselves.

If we are to truly understand the entrepreneurial mindset, we must look beneath the surface, beneath what the social psychologist Edgar Schein referred to as the visible artifacts and the espoused values to understand the unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions that reveal what he refers to as “the ultimate source of values and actions”. It is there that a powerful understanding of motivation and untapped human potential begins to emerge.

Author and ELI Founder Gary Schoeniger is an internationally recognized thought leader in the field of entrepreneurship education.