In Search of a New Model for Entrepreneurial Education

I have been debating the definition of “entrepreneur” with my colleague and good friend Stephen.  Insightful as always, Stephen foresees a coming disruption to the “way it always was.”  In this case, the “it” is work.  As an educator in Berkeley’s engineering entrepreneurship program and an entrepreneur himself, he has embraced the idea that kids coming out of our nation’s universities will not have jobs like our parents, or even many of us did.  No climbing corporate ladders, no 40-year tenure, no gold watch, no pension.

Instead, businesses will organize in clusters rather than traditional hierarchical structures, and idea I talked about in 2010 at TEDxAustin.  To succeed in this new business architecture, graduates will need to be the CEO of their own careers, navigating opportunities, continually re-learning skills, constantly assessing risk, relentlessly adjusting their strategy.

That sounds a whole lot like an entrepreneur, or what the modern gestalt would have you believe an entrepreneur to be. Actually, the modern gestalt would probably define an entrepreneur as someone who has declared himself a startup founder.  Better yet if he joins one of the hundreds of business incubators that have popped up like mushrooms in the last half decade.

Stephen ponders the definition of entrepreneur because he is asked to teach engineers to become entrepreneurs, the premise being that you can give a set of instructions to a bunch of smart young people, they will eagerly ingest the learning, and go on to create the country’s next great businesses.   That is, if people could just learn to be entrepreneurs, our economy would vastly improve, jobs would magically appear, angels (at least angel investors) would sing.

It doesn’t seem to work that way.  Because surely with all the classes, workshops, accelerators, books, lectures, angel groups, and mentors – all those things we so casually call the “startup ecosystem,” the success rate for entrepreneurial startups ought to be a whole lot better than 1 in 12.  In recent years, the “ecosystem” has had more support, more money, more champions, more hype for startups, than in any previous generation.  And yet it just doesn’t produce more successful businesses.

So what to do?

If an economy hell-bent on making more entrepreneurs  – and arguably in need of more good ones, is unable to teach young people to be entrepreneurs, how will we supply an information economy with the entrepreneurial workforce it so desperately needs?

As Stephen and I debated this question, we kept coming back to the concept of passion.  An entrepreneur starts with passion.  Passion for a vision, a design, a goal, a proof.  Entrepreneurs have an unstoppable, insatiable passion.

Passion cannot be taught.

I could no more be a doctor than fly to the moon.   I care about people.  I’m great in a crisis.  I am pretty good at the mechanics of first aid.  If you sprain your ankle or cut yourself, you’d be glad to have me around. But memorize the 206 bones in the human body or comprehend the interactivity of the endocrine system. Yeah, that’s not going to happen.  No amount of medical school or internship or residency would have made me a great doctor. Because while medicine interests me, I have no passion for it.

Why should we think that entrepreneurship is any different?  While you can teach process, technique, skills, you can only fan the flames of passion.

I might even go so far as to argue that the current environment that insists that anyone can be an entrepreneur has had the opposite effect.  We’ve beaten the passion out of entrepreneurship in exchange for the cultural cache and the shiny promise of a startup business.

Entrepreneurship, it turns out, is about harnessing doing to passion.

It is the difference between vision and mission. Vision is the passion. Mission is the execution of a specific strategy that enables the vision to be realized.

We can train for mission, and that’s where the focus of entrepreneurial education ought to be.  Teaching visionary people to execute more effectively in a pursuit of a passion they will pursue regardless of the trappings of a so-called ecosystem.

As mentors and teachers, we need to get much better at culling the interested from the passionate, giving the former skills to become specialists to a mission while equipping the latter to achieve the vision.


If you’d like to weigh in on this discussion and read more about why – in the changing workforce – this distinction is critical, I encourage you to follow Stephen Pieraldi’s writings on this and other issues relevant to business creation and success.

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