Shifting Entrepreneurship from the Perimeter to the Core

February 14, 2017

As a guest writer for the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation in South Africa, ELI Founder Gary Schoeniger shares how a new framework will be required in order to move entrepreneurship from the perimeter to the core of the way education operates. Visit their blog here.

Entrepreneurship has never been more important than it is today. Academic, business, government, and nonprofit leaders around the world have begun to recognize entrepreneurship education as essential for creating the societies of the future. Among the most vocal is the World Economic Forum (WEF). In one report, they cite the need to embed entrepreneurship at all levels of education, emphasizing that “It is not enough to add entrepreneurship on the perimeter – it needs to be at the core of the way education operates.” WEF further states that it is “a process that will require new teaching methods, new frameworks, and new models.”

And yet, while entrepreneurship education initiatives have exploded within colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations worldwide, our understanding of entrepreneurship remains limited and narrowly defined. As a result, much of these efforts have yielded limited results. In fact, a recent report published by the Kauffman Foundation declared that “[t]he traditional methods of encouraging entrepreneurship are not producing desired results and should be replaced with methods that are more likely to gain traction.”

If we are to infuse entrepreneurship into the core of our systems of education, we need to focus on the five key concepts – the five E’s of entrepreneurship education:

1. Expand the definition. If we are to integrate entrepreneurship into the core of our educational systems, we must begin by re-defining the term in a way that is accessible to all, regardless of their circumstances, interests, or chosen path.

Entrepreneurship at its core is a process of discovery – the search for the intersection between our own interests and abilities and the needs of our fellow humans. It does not require, big ideas, venture capital, a unique personality, or an Ivy League MBA. It simply requires discovery skills – skills that anyone can learn to develop, yet skills that our system of education have historically undervalued, overlooked or ignored.

Too often, entrepreneurship education initiatives are over-influenced by Silicon Valley success stories or reality television shows that encourage students to come up with big ideas, write business plans, and pursue venture capital investment. While these stories may captivate our imagination, they are by far the exception and do not reflect the bootson-the-ground reality of most successful entrepreneurs. By continuously promoting these narrowly defined models, we may be unwittingly alienating the vast majority of our students population, not to mention faculty.

2. Explore the mindset. In order to truly understand the “how” of entrepreneurship, it is essential to look beneath the surface to examine the “why”. What are the underlying beliefs, assumptions, and expectations that drive entrepreneurial behavior? And what are the social, factors that either encourage or inhibit the development of entrepreneurial attitudes, behaviors, and skills?

If we are to infuse entrepreneurial thinking throughout the curriculum, we must recognize that not all students have a desire to start a business, yet as humans we are all driven by an innate need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. That is to say, we all have a strong desire to be entrepreneur-ial – to be engaged in work that matters, to have agency and a voice, and to have the opportunity to apply our strengths to something greater than ourselves. And when given the chance to do so, we are much more likely to become engaged in our work, to recognize the value of education, to persist, and ultimately to thrive.

3. Engage our students. We need to do a better job of connecting learning experiences to our student’s individual hopes and dreams. For some, hope may be seen as a touchy-feely concept that is easy to overlook within an academic context. Yet a growing body of research indicates that hope uniquely predicts objective academic achievement above intelligence, personality, and previous academic achievement. In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

4. Embrace entrepreneurial learning. Entrepreneurial learning can be transformative, challenging students to re-imagine themselves and the world around them in ways that lead to positive lasting change. If we are to embed entrepreneurship at all levels of education, we must embrace experiential, problem-based learning. We must provide all students with opportunities to develop the skills necessary to identify and solve real world problems within resource constrained circumstances where the rules are unknown, no one is in charge, and no one is coming to the rescue. It is only through this process in these circumstances, that we can truly develop self-reliance and resourcefulness, creativity and critical thinking, effective communication, teamwork, and other entrepreneurial skills.

As Google’s Chief Education Evangelist Jaime Casap put it, “stop asking students what they want to be when they grow up and start asking them what problems they want to solve and what they need to learn in order to solve those problems.”

5. Examine ourselves. In the past we created innovators and entrepreneurs by accident rather than by design. If we are to fully embrace entrepreneurial education we must also look within. We must re-examine our own deeply held, taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions that may no longer be effective. We must embrace new methods, new frameworks, and new models that encourage all students to be innovative and entrepreneurial regardless of their chosen path. We must also recognize the power of system structure to shape behavior.

As the American Theologian Richard Shaull once wrote – “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

If we are to shift entrepreneurship from the perimeter to the core of the way education operates, we must recognize the transformative power of entrepreneurship education as a means to empower ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things, thus enabling them to participate in the transformation of their world.

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