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Re–examining Entrepreneurship Teaching

Highly successful entrepreneurs bring a combination of unique talents to the table, which the next generation of entrepreneurs needs to understand and emulate.  It is the exercise of these talents that guide potential enterprisers toward significant opportunity streams, expand their vision, and provide the know–how and clout to execute with an impact.

Studying these talents and teaching them is not easy, nor is it completely possible to do in the classroom.  However, until they are seriously addressed, we sell our emerging entrepreneurs short of their full potential, or worse yet, steer students toward a career for which they may not be temperamentally suited.

I have always been concerned about the sense of urgency that academicians emit when they discuss the teaching of entrepreneurship.  Regardless of whether they are involved in a one course program, or a program involving a series of courses, the end product seems usually to be the launching of a business—usually one defined and planned in the classroom.  I hope I'm wrong in this interpretation, because I think it sells students into a false sense of entrepreneurial potential.  Very few students who have not had extensive industrial experience in the field of their choice are in a position to start a business that will make a significant mark in their careers.  My concern is that those who lack that experience, yet launch a business, lack a lot of the tools for greatness.  I like to think that students have great potential, and that if they are truly interested in a career in entrepreneurship, they deserve better.  They deserve a chance to make significant impact.

Instead let them be shown that entrepreneurship is a viable career option; that it takes extra business savvy; that it is attainable; that their early entrepreneurial bent might best be used to very actively shape their careers to that end—to find that industry, that firm, that job, that mentor to get them going on a fast track.  With this approach they can learn what entrepreneurship truly is, to understand its competitive challenges, and its behavior and strategic requirements.

I cringe at the thought of having to force–pick a business opportunity in the classroom.  I shudder at the thought of choosing business partners from among happen–chance class members.  I sympathize with those having to pump numbers for a non–existing firm, entering a field they know next to nothing about.  I tremble when I think that they go up against other teams in the same classes—or worse, in a national competition where they are encouraged to put their plans into a going business.  They are launched into the business world with a perfection of planning and procedure knowledge--but no sense of "doing".  And "doing" is what entrepreneurship is!  Our students have real potential and deserve better career guidance.

In closing, I return to my metaphor and a quote from Richard Neustadt and Ernest May's Thinking in Time (1995).  "(In the classroom)...we work at margins.  If our students were baseball players, we would not expect to turn out Ted Williamses or Sandy Koufaxes, we would be happy to see a batting average go up from .250 to .265 or an earned run average go down from 6.0 to 5.0". Actually, in universities, baseball players get far better teaching than entrepreneurship students. They have a practice field where they learn the fundamentals and do them over and over.  They play practice games and then play against other teams—first against red shirts, then teams out of their league, then in–league teams, and if they're good enough they contend in post season play–off games. Their coaches, usually very experienced players,  try to recruit the potentially best as team members. They go over game films to recognize good execution and bad.  They study their adversaries' films. When their final season is over, they know whether they're good enough to make it with the pros.

In entrepreneurship, we don't have a practice field at the university.  Internship programs help, but they are not enough.  Behavior training helps, but it's not enough (Mitton & Lilligren–Mitton 1980, Mitton 1994).  Mostly we teach our students so that they are informed.  Hopefully, we can inform them about things they need to know.  But knowing  is not enough.  Entrepreneurial prowess is not in what you know, but in what you can do with what you know.  We need to get our students ready,  and aim them toward  the firing line of experience.  Simply put, we need to teach our students to be entrepreneurial rather than to be instant entrepreneurs.

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