How Higher Education Is Killing Entrepreneurial Thinking

A few weeks ago, at the National Association of Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) Conference, I took part in a panel discussion on the subject of preparing our future workforce for entrepreneurial thinking.

As companies increasingly express an interest in creative, innovative employees, one of the hottest questions in entrepreneurship education has become, “How do we prepare graduates to solve real problems and find opportunities for their employer rather than just show up to a job?”

The first question I received on the panel was “how are we doing as a community of entrepreneurship educators in preparing this future workforce?”

I was quiet for a few seconds. Frankly, I was nervous about what would happen if I said the first thing that came to my mind. I prepared myself to get booed off the stage and said, “I think we’re doing a terrible job. In fact, I think that we are actually killing innovative and entrepreneurial thinking through the classes that we teach.”

They didn’t erupt in boos. They let me continue.

1. Students are pitching to professors, not customers.

In many entrepreneurship classrooms, professors make judgment calls about good ideas and bad ideas. Sometimes students pitch their ideas in business plan competitions to panels of experts that decide the value of a potential company. In the real world, logic and expertise can’t predict customer behavior. Even the top professional startup investors are wrong about predicting which startups will be successful 90% of the time. The only way to create a successful company is to discover what customers actually want through direct interactions, not assumptions. Instead of making judgments, we should push students to interact with potential customers and conduct experiments to see if they can simulate sales. If a student is required to appease an internal source of authority, like a professor, for the sake of their grade, then they won’t learn to respect the true source of authority, the customer.

2. Classroom work isn’t giving students butterflies in their stomachs.

Creating a successful company is not as simple as checking things off a to-do list. Yet many professors still give students a list of tasks—create a business plan, interview an entrepreneur, read a book—as if there is an easy roadmap to building a million dollar company. Entrepreneurship is an emotional roller coaster. It’s scary and exciting all at the same time, and, above all else, it’s fraught with uncertainty. If teachers aren’t giving students butterflies in their stomachs – making them feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable – then they aren’t preparing students for the challenges of entrepreneurship. And they certainly aren’t teaching them to develop entrepreneurial thinking. Instead, teachers who don’t push students out of their comfort zone are simply reinforcing traditional 9 to 5 employee thinking. There’s nothing wrong with a 9 to 5 employee, but it’s not the mindset companies are currently looking for as they interview business school graduates.

If you want to give your students real butterflies, then give them an objective and ask them to figure out how to achieve it. Better yet, send them out on some real experiential activities, like the activities suggested in this curriculum. There is no doubt that uncertainty in a classroom makes students uncomfortable. They like having tasks that make it easy for them to walk the road to success. But, if we keep teaching students entrepreneurship that only works in a classroom, and not in the real world, we aren’t doing them any favors. In fact, we’re setting them up to fail themselves and their employer.

It is our responsibility to push students to fight through difficulty and uncertainty. If your students are uncomfortable, that’s a good thing. When they enter into the workforce, they will be armed with an entrepreneurial mindset, arguably the most important key to success in business over the next 20 years. The great thing about the attendees of the NACCE conference is that most of them already know these two potential barriers to the cultivation of innovative thinking. Many of the educators there were some of the most forward thinking teachers I have met, focused on continuously improving their game and the value they were delivering to students. But classrooms that reflect that understanding remain a small minority. There are still far too many classes making these two big mistakes. Fortunately, I didn’t get booed off stage. Many of the educators in the room shared with me the awesome activities they do with their students to give them those butterflies. I’d love to hear more of your examples. How do you create uncertainty for your students or your employees to encourage entrepreneurial thinking? How do you give them butterflies in their stomachs and inspire them to solve problems?

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