On Entrepreneurship Education

I returned last week from SXSW in Austin, where my friend David Altounian invited me to a fascinating panel titled, “A Global Conversation on Entrepreneurship Education.”

David is on the faculty of St. Edwards University, and he managed to get some of the biggest names in entrepreneurship education to join the panel: Tom Byers of Stanford, Bill Aulet of MIT, Bruce Barringer of OSU, Bob Peterson of UT Austin, Connie Bourassa-Shaw from the University of Washington, and Hugh Thomas from the University of Hong Kong. David certainly knows how to put together an all-star panel.

Twenty years ago no one had even heard of the notion of “entrepreneurship education.” Business curricula in higher education were almost invariably part of formal MBA programs, and (as Steve Blank pointed out in his brilliant HBR article last year) MBA programs have historically focused on preparing students for careers as managers with large companies, where one needs to know things like accounting methods, gross margin, and org charts. All good things to know, but it turns out that knowing that stuff is not necessarily predictive of entrepreneurial success.

One of the panelists pointed out that being an entrepreneur means being able to embrace failure — not just in the obvious way (most startups fail) but actually in a much broader sense: startup methodology often involves testing assumptions by doing small experiments that provide insights into market demand, customer desires, etc. Most of those small experiments fail, but the learnings that come from those failures end up creating a successful startup process. Students who go into top-tier MBA programs have usually never experienced failure. They are 22-year-olds who got straight As through high school and college, so asking them to embrace failure has some cognitive dissonance to it.

But then Tom Byers from Stanford pointed out something really interesting: traditional education is about learning facts, while innovative entrepreneurship is about not being bound by facts. So how do universities, who have traditionally been in the business of teaching facts, create curricula that help students to unlearn facts?

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler

A couple generations ago, the American economy was driven by companies such as General Motors and Proctor & Gamble. MBA programs were created in order to provide those companies with smart young managers who knew their stuff. Today, the economy is driven by companies such as Google and Twitter. And as Thomas Friedman pointed out in a column in the NYT last week, Google today doesn't look for MBAs in their hiring. They look for people who have “leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn.”

Adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. Those are the important 21st century skills. Now universities need to figure out how they can be taught.