By: Brendan Daly
Can entrepreneurship be taught? Initially, my answer to this question would have been no, entrepreneurship takes a certain individual. In fact, some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs are not classically educated at all, having dropped out of the traditional college system. Take Steve Jobs for example. He is arguably the most iconic symbol of innovation and entrepreneurship of all time, yet he dropped out of Reed College in Portland after a mere six months. Case closed right? Not so fast. After dropping out of Reed College, Steve Jobs spent much of the next two years crashing in dorm rooms and dropping in on classes, including a calligraphy course, that Jobs says, “was largely responsible for the Mac’s multitude of typefaces”. By tailoring his academic program to suit his interests, Steve Jobs was able to tap into his entrepreneurial flair and created a competitive advantage for Apple. Thus, the issue in Steve Jobs’ education was the relevancy of the material being taught to his ultimate career path.
The standard paradigm of teaching for highly disciplined courses, such as law, science and engineering, requires lengthy assignments, complex calculations, and theoretical discussion. This approach, however, does not work when teaching entrepreneurship and innovation because these topics revolve around addressing dynamically changing problems. It’s not that it can’t be taught, it just needs to have a different approach – one based on action and experience.
Even though entrepreneurship can be taught, it is not for everyone. It requires a certain type of individual – someone who wants to be an entrepreneur. I characterize an entrepreneur as an optimistic individual who will take initiative. In addition, an entrepreneur must treat failure as a learning experience, not as a matter of personal humiliation. One of my favorite quotes on entrepreneurship comes from Henry Ford, who stated, “If you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” This alludes to the idea that entrepreneurs need to retain a positive mindset at all times. From a personal perspective, I know I am less confident and feel vulnerable in the areas where I feel I do not have adequate knowledge. Therefore, even with the right attributes and characteristics, having the knowledge to back them up is a key critical component to realizing an individual’s true entrepreneurial potential.
The practice of teaching entrepreneurship is a relatively recent development in the merging worlds of business and education. One of the first institutions to grasp this trend was the University of Notre Dame, which recently established the Engineering, Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Excellence Master’s program (ESTEEM). ESTEEM takes individuals with a technical background – education or experience in the areas of engineering, science and mathematics – and teaches them the fundamental concepts of business and commercialization. The students then apply learned concepts towards commercialization of the university’s research and intellectual property. As a former student of ESTEEM, I am aware of how my education has prepared me for entrepreneurship as well as where more educational foundations would have been helpful. In this post, I am going to examine what I believe are the biggest strengths of an education from a program like ESTEEM. Then I will identify additional academic programs that I believe would be particularly useful to have in a modern day startup organization.
Benefits gained from an entrepreneurship education program
Capstone Thesis Project
The first core strength one gains from an entrepreneurship education program is the ability to understand the methodology and components needed to create a viable business. In the case of ESTEEM, this is achieved through the capstone thesis project which involves the creation of a commercialization strategy for research and intellectual property of the University of Notre Dame. A capstone thesis project is beneficial because, once an educational foundation exists, a person can always tap into it at any stage in his or her career whenever an exciting opportunity is identified. For instance, I have applied the principles I learned through my thesis in the structure of enFocus as well as through our client projects.
My ESTEEM thesis project also taught me how to identify and understand current market trends and how use this information to move forward with ideas that have the greatest market potential and impact. Ideas and opinions are some of the most readily available commodities. The trick is to be able to sieve through thousands and narrow it down to the ones with the most business potential.
Another critical component to assessing business feasibility is acquiring customer validation. Business in the 21st century puts the consumer in absolute control. Solutions have to be created, tailored, and adopted to cater for a very particular need. Entrepreneurs need to be exceptional listeners in order to be able to identify consumer demands. Part of the ESTEEM curriculum, Wendy Angst’s Commercialization Analytics class was helpful because I learned how to speak with clients and create empathy maps which helped me to see the issues and problems from a consumer’s point-of-view. With this information I learned how to create a plan to satisfy consumer needs.
However, having a fantastic plan is only the starting point for an entrepreneurial endeavor. It is critical for any budding entrepreneur to be able to present an idea in an engaging and intuitive manner to acquire mentors and financial support. The Technical and Business Presentations class through ESTEEM was extremely useful as it was focused on how to construct effective elevator pitches and business presentations. The class also taught the tactics and strategies needed to effectively excite prospective clients and acquire access to capital, be it from financial institutions, venture capitalists, or angel investors.
One of the most significant advantages of an entrepreneurship education program like ESTEEM is that it produces a T-Shaped Individual, a useful result for entrepreneurs and individuals that might not have the risk profile or desire to start their own organization. A T-Shaped Individual, an analogy used in job recruitment to describe the abilities of a specific type of person in the workforce, is the product of adding business acumen to a student with a technical background. The value of this type of education is that it equips and empowers students to facilitate cross-disciplinary discussion and collaboration in technical organizations. This can be a huge asset for entrepreneurs as well as any large organization looking to instill a culture of innovation and intrapreneurship.
One of the most interesting and powerful courses I took during the ESTEEM program was a mathematical modeling course entitled “Technology and Operations Management” taught by Dr. Jeffrey Kantor. Even though mathematical modeling may seem like a daunting and complicated task, anyone who can start to utilize these tools is going to put themselves and their businesses to the forefront of the industry. The real power and relevance of mathematical modeling was illustrated for me following a take home assignment set by Dr. Kantor. I was challenged with plotting the forecasted demand of a list of products against the ability of each product’s staff to satisfy demand. Within the algorithm I was able to assign higher productivity to certain employees, which came with an associated higher cost. I was also able to define different payment criteria for full time versus part time staff. For example, part time staff would receive a slightly higher salary, however, would not receive benefits and could be brought on and let go with a weeks’ notice. Full time employees were assumed to be slightly more productive, cost slightly less however came with a clause that if employed, had to remain employed for the full year. Once I ran the mathematical model, I was able to identify the optimal team composition based on skillset and productivity. I also identified the optimal ratio of full time to part time employees as well as the point in the year when I would need to hire more employees. This allowed me to minimize employment costs while ensuring demand would be satisfied throughout the year.
My educational experience with mathematical modeling techniques has transferred over to some of the projects we are currently working on at enFocus. Working with Dr. Kantor and Santiago Garces, we were able to develop an algorithm that can conduct route optimization. Given a list of locations and the distances between each pair of locations, the algorithm can determine what the shortest possible route is that visits each location exactly once and returns to the origin location. This program has multiple uses in city government operations, as it can save time and money due to fuel and operations and maintenance savings.
Supplemental Academic Programs
An entrepreneurship-based educational program provides a strong background for anyone interested in innovation or starting their own ventures. However, there are some areas that my professional experience has shown me would be useful to supplement an entrepreneur’s education.
Website & Application Prototyping
In the age of data and internet connectivity, a class devoted to website design along with agile application prototyping would prove very useful. Employees with the skillset to create intuitive web applications provide new businesses with a real competitive advantage. Adding this topic to the curriculum of an entrepreneurship education program will enable students to understand how a consumer will engage with their web applications and how to improve them through feedback. This practice is becoming increasingly important as business starts going mobile with the widespread adoption of the smart phone device.
Marketing and Data Analytics
While bootstrapping may explain the lack of drinkable coffee, ink or other basic office supplies, it does not justify a poor online business marketing campaign. Thus, it is important to teach entrepreneurs the basics of effective marketing. But I am not talking about traditional marketing classes – I work at a startup and we do not apply the methods a traditional course would suggest, nor do we have the budget to enact such practices. Rather, this curriculum would focus on social media, specifically Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, and YouTube. An in-depth knowledge of social media and its associated online tools empowers an entrepreneur to create a powerful and engaging marketing campaign at minimal cost.
In addition to understanding how to manage a social media marketing campaign, it is equally important to know how to monitor and perform data analytics on the campaign. I came across a fascinating statistic online recently, which claimed that today, a person is subjected to more new information in a day than a person during the Middle Ages would have been in his entire life. The problem with monitoring digital marketing is not the availability of data– it has shifted to a problem of being able to extract, analyze, and synthesize relevant information together in order to make intuitive data driven decisions.
On the whole, I think that there is huge potential in teaching entrepreneurship in the United States. While not everyone has the attributes to become an entrepreneur, there is a void in relevant entrepreneurship-based educational programs. Higher education institutions need more programs that will enable and empower the true entrepreneurs of this country to develop the skillset and confidence needed to grasp and pursue entrepreneurial opportunities. People exposed to entrepreneurship frequently express that they have more opportunity to exercise creative freedoms, higher self-esteem, and an overall greater sense of control over their own lives. By creating and fostering a robust entrepreneurial culture, it is possible to maximize individual and collective economic and social success on a local, national, and global scale.