Training & Development

Can entrepreneurship really be taught in the classroom?

Kirsten Robb /

Where does “entrepreneurship” belong on a university campus?

Some naturally say in the classroom, within the business school. Or the computer science school. Or the engineering faculty. Or the arts/media programs. In an internship program or the entrepreneurship degree, if there is one.

The fact is there are clear benefits to “teaching” entrepreneurship in a classroom setting. Students learn the fundamental theory behind why, how and where to start up a business. They are often exposed to guest speakers who are real current “movers and shakers” in the ecosystem or “grey, experienced entrepreneurs” who give their stories of how they got to where they are now and what they learnt along the way.

Really good degree programs offer an “experiential element” to the course. It could be a competition where students pitch the ideas they have worked on over the semester. It might even be an online simulation competition where students compete in a virtual market place against their classmates and sometimes against students on the other side of the world.

Internships with startups are an amazing learning vehicle too. But “working in a startup” is still different from “working on your own startup”.

So what could possibly enable a student to experience and learn more about entrepreneurship than a combination of course work, group assignments and a simulated startup experience?

The answer, in my opinion, is actually being an entrepreneur – actually founding and running a startup in tandem with studying a degree regardless of the focus and content of that said degree. It is being a student entrepreneur. It is taking the same risks, feeling the same feelings of rejections and loss and celebrating the same wins as a real entrepreneur. Because you are a real entrepreneur and it’s not a simulation game you are playing.

Entrepreneurship in the classroom is necessary as part of the micro-ecosystem but not for the purpose of giving birth to startups. It is a valuable feeder into “pre-accelerator” support and incubation services that only accept students who opt-in for the right reasons. It’s valuable (and fun) to study Steve Blank, lean startup methodology, to learn about all the current players in your own city and how your ecosystem compares to Silicon Valley and Israel.

You might even earn credit by interning at a real startup. But gaining course credit towards your degree should not be a motivator for you or your team if you plan to actually launch a real startup and as soon as this enters the equation for students, the water is muddied as to how genuinely “on board” team members are in terms of going the whole way with this startup project.

The formal study and research of entrepreneurship (and innovation more broadly) is necessary and only adds value and insights for entrepreneurs and wannabes but this should not be confused with the lessons that can and will be learnt running one’s own startup company. It’s more responsibility for a young student with exams, assignments and sometimes part-time jobs already on their plates but the learning and rewards are in another league.

Still need convincing that there are no major differences? Try this. Offer a real prize to teams of students in formal degree programs that teach entrepreneurship. It should be a competition of sorts e.g. based on a pitch or demo day toward the end of semester. The twist with the prize is, it can only be accepted by teams that follow on with the startup project for real, and continue after the course ends (Note: A good example of this is credit for their startup to use cloud or web services as conditions usually apply that mean a real domain name must be registered, with company incorporation, etc.)

I have tried this at least four times in an 18 month period across different faculty and organisation competitions on university campuses and not once was the prize claimed. Groups of students that seemed so driven and solid disbanded sooner or later after the semester ended, and their potential startups died. What did happen was, particular individuals from those same teams went off and started new, real startup teams and then came to claim the prizes.

It is a little Darwinian but it was ironically those same individuals and their new teams that needed the prizes least.

Joshua Flanneryis student entrepreneur development officer at the University of NSW.

This piece originally appeared at StartupSmart.

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Kirsten Robb

Kirsten Robb is a former journalist at SmartCompany. Previously, she worked at News Corp as a property reporter for Leader Newspapers and the Herald Sun, and holds a Masters of Journalism at Melbourne University.