Teaching Entrepreneurship vs. Entrepreneurial Skills

As entrepreneurship education grows more popular, we need to separate what it takes to teach students to be true entrepreneurs versus helping them to develop an entrepreneurial mindset in their careers.

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I’ve been teaching entrepreneurship and working startup teams for almost 10 years and, within this time frame, the sheer number of university entrepreneurship courses has increased exponentially. Moreover, increasingly universities are incorporating such entrepreneurship courses into their core curriculum across all majors, equivalent to a general education requirement such as English, History, or General Science. These courses cover similar topics and often invite entrepreneurs, investors and other ecosystem participants to share their success stories.

At the university where I work, Özyeğin University in Istanbul/Turkey, we’ve had an“Introduction to Entrepreneurship” in the core undergraduate curriculum since the university’s inception in 2008. Students across multiple departments are required to take the course in order to graduate, with exposure to the concepts of elevator pitches, marketing & financial plans, business model canvases and startup funding opportunities supported by guest speakers from the local startup ecosystem.

However, despite the topic’s rising popularity, I’ve also faced a rising tide of resentment and opposition to the course from a number of students.

I don’t want to be an entrepreneur; I don’t want to start my own business. Why do I have to take this course?

And they are right… in the UK, according to a HESA 2016 study, only 4.7% of recent graduates were self-employed or freelance, with only 0.6% having actually started their own business. I’m sure those statistics are equally valid anywhere around the world, including Turkey.

So why do we force all university students to take a course on entrepreneurship?

From Vocation to Skill Set

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More than just serving a trending topic, as educators we teach students entrepreneurship because we believe it equips them with a set of skills, a mindset that is applicable wherever their careers take them, whether that be in a startup, a large corporation or even a government institution.

According to an 2014 EU Report on Entrepreneurial Skills:

Entrepreneurship is ‘an individual’s ability to turn ideas into action. It includes creativity, innovation and risk-taking, as well as the ability to plan and manage projects in order to achieve objectives’ . It is seen as vital to promoting innovation, competitiveness and economic growth . Fostering entrepreneurial spirit supports the creation of new firms and business growth. However, entrepreneurship skills also provide benefits regardless of whether a person sees their future as starting a business . They can be used across people’s personal and working lives as they encompass ‘creativity, initiative, tenacity, teamwork, understanding of risk, and a sense of responsibility’ .

However, in the communication and delivery of these courses, often times the focus still on helping individuals develop the skills to become full-fledged entrepreneurs rather than presenting a universally applicable skill set. From the ceremony (elevator pitches, pitch decks, etc.) to the narrative (successful entrepreneurs and investors) to the hype (“how to access VC funding?”), we paint a picture that is relevant only a very, very small minority of the student population.

Furthermore, measurement regarding the development of entrepreneurial skills is limited to metrics such as: Level of Self-Employment, Preferred Employment Status (self-employed), Not Enough Skills to be Self-Employed (employees), etc. While these are strong indicators of entrepreneurial activity and inclination, they don’t count the significant percentage of individuals who take an entrepreneurial approach to their work and the challenges presented, or who are great at spotting and developing opportunities in the marketplace for their institution.

Fundamentally, as much as we see the universal applicability of the teaching, simply by virtue of the course name and curriculum, alongside our measured success KPIs, we subconsciously tell students that technology entrepreneurship and self-employment is the idealized career path to choose and everyone else is just not that creative, innovative or courageous.

We can do better.

So What are the Core Entrepreneurial Skills We Should be Teaching in the Classroom?

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I’ve boiled it down to five key skills which I believe can be taught in a mass, entry-level “Entrepreneurial Skills” course for all students, graduate or undergraduate.

  1. Opportunity Identification
  2. Opportunity Validation
  3. Solution Prototyping & Testing
  4. Lean Project Management
  5. Feasibility Measurement

1) Opportunity Identification

What is a good idea? How does one find good ideas?

A key skill needed in the workplace is the ability to spot opportunities. It is the process of listening to people’s complaints, noticing inefficiencies and broken systems, seeing empty spaces where a new approach, a new application can make a difference. Then it is analyzing these negatives and seeing their innovation potential that transforms them into an opportunity.

Students can be taught how to see the world around them through this lens of “opportunity”, then bringing their own experiences and expanding knowledge to associate them into new ideas. I believe more than classes on “creativity” or “innovation”, it is the simple ability to identify opportunities that will set graduates apart in the workplace.

Opportunity identification is a competency that can be developed as are other unique competencies and that the entrepreneurship classroom is an appropriate venue for developing the skills necessary to improve the ability to identify opportunities…

Opportunity Identification and Its Role in the Entrepreneurial Classroom Dawn R. DeTienne and Gaylen N. Chandler, Sept. 2004

2) Opportunity Validation

How do I know if there’s a market for my idea?

We often times characterize entrepreneurs as big risk takers, staking it all to win big. However, the best entrepreneurs are actually best at making small good value bets, predicting what will work or what will not via measured trial and error. And this skill is required not just in startups but in any institution. Ideas are always there; but no one actually knows which ones are valuable.

Students should be taught how to analyze potential market opportunities via both primary and secondary sources, getting a feel for the size of the opportunity and it’s market. They need to learn how to talk to customers and delve into the details of sector value chains and ecosystems. From there they can decide if the opportunity they identified is actually worth pursuing with additional resources.

3) Solution Prototyping & Testing

How do I test the viability of my idea?

Regardless of a person’s background and interest area, everyone needs to learn how to quick prototype/model their idea and get feedback of that idea. This could take the form of quick sketches, paper mockups, 3D-printed physical or interactive digital models, explainer videos, landing pages, cobbled together code pieces, or concierge services.

Stanford’s d.school calls this “bias toward action”, i.e. promoting action-oriented behavior, rather than discussion based work. Basically, action (e.g. getting out and engaging users, prototyping & testing) is the way to get people unstuck, to inspire new thinking, and to come to agreement as a team.

Students should be taught how to build quick, simple prototypes and use available prototyping tools, whether they are studying engineering, design, business, law or medicine. Then they should learn how to take those prototypes to customers and users (external or internal) in order to get feedback on their idea. This skill will help move graduates beyond just ideas into the realm of possible via tangible, interactive experiments.

4) Lean Project Management

What is the process to develop an idea into an actual solution?

Students should be familiar with basic project management frameworks, and how to deploy them based on the specific situation. Featuring most prominently in this skill set is the agile development framework.

While initially designed for software development teams, we are seeing increasing applicability in other functional areas, specifically when dealing with the development and management of new projects. While the waterfall technique is still applicable for “known” problems and solutions, agile has proven robust in dealing with “unknown” problems and solutions, regardless of the department or background.

Thus, students should be equipped with the fundamentals of this working approach, and know when and how to apply it as the situation arises, both to manage projects and teams alike.

5) Feasibility Measurement

What do we measure in order to understand the economic viability of the idea?

When it comes to launching new products and services, no matter big corporation or startup, there is always a phase when a feasibility study is set in motion. The feasibility study is intended to reveal whether the new offering is headed to delivering commercial and financial success or not, but oftentimes the scope and scale of the study falls short.

In the corporate world, feasibility is the sole domain of extravagant Excel spreadsheets, choke-full of assumptions and fantasy dreams, which somehow “prove” that an idea will work. In the startup world, feasibility is based on a handful of customer conversations, i.e. “they like my product!”, and validation from a financial investor, i.e. “Mr. So-and-So gave us some money so this will definitely work out…”, that somehow give teams false confidence in charging ahead with their idea. Both of these approaches fall short.

Rather, students need to be taught how to pair the best of both worlds, financial forecasts with in-person market feedback, stacking key assumptions against measured leading project metrics. They need to know numbers, how to measure them accurately, how to understand the messages they give, and different models for extrapolating them to scale.

Regardless of the size or potential impact of the project, the final decision always boils down to feasibility analysis and graduates should be able to deliver a evidence-based feasibility to managers, investors or stakeholders.

So are these skills enough? Anything else that needed to be added or subtracted? How can we fit these all into a one semester course? I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

Make Innovation Work

Core Strateji is a strategy consulting firm that specializes in supporting leading companies to transform into ambidextrous organizations. Are you ready to move your innovation activities forward?

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Introvert, Tech & Corporate Entrepreneurship, Instructor @ Istanbul, Turkey

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