Over the past 30 years, the field of entrepreneurship education has made incredible strides in reach, credibility, and teaching methods. However, it still has a far way to go to reach its potential.
I believe the next major step our field needs to make is more emphasis on students starting an actual business during their entrepreneurship class, rather than simply writing a business plan or participating in experiential activities.
Starting a business, especially a first business, can require remarkably little money and no business experience, and the rewards it can provide in the length of a semester are significant:
• Confidence and self-worth from business cards that say "Founder & CEO.”
• A viable business idea that has received positive feedback from peers, teachers, and potential customers that the student wants to pursue after the class.
• Personal growth that comes from going out of one’s comfort zone and learning from failures in a safe environment.
• Producing the first product (seeing, touching and smelling it) and then seeing it create a satisfied customer.
• First customers that prove the idea can work beyond the paper plan.
• Unforeseen challenges that would not have come into awareness without attempting the plan.
• A plan for how to continue the pursuit of the idea after the class is over.
I started my first business 10 years ago when I was 16 years old. I’ve taken many entrepreneurship courses and programs through the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (http://www.nfte.com) and my alma mater, the Stern School of Business at New York University.
The one thing I’ve learned is that learning in the classroom alone doesn’t give a student a full understanding of entrepreneurship like starting a real business does. One of the biggest challenges aspiring entrepreneurs face is simply getting started, and the classroom is the perfect environment to help them do this.
In my opinion, starting and running a business is the ultimate experiential activity, because of:
Ownership. Ownership gives entrepreneurs the hope of hitting it really big one day and all the benefits that come with that, including financial, social, and psychic. Also, for the first time for many, it gives students the opportunity to be their own boss and call the shots.
Comfort Zone & Failure. Standing by a business concept that is important to the individual not just as a class project or a work assignment but in life overall is extremely difficult for most first-time entrepreneurs. Teaching students to be open to constructive criticism and to be prepared to hear the word "no” and yet continue to invest in their idea, share the concept with others, and make sales calls is challenging for most people, but at the same time, is an incredible opportunity for personal growth.
The classroom is the perfect environment to teach students to confront and learn from failures in starting their own business. The ‘safe environment’ increases the likelihood that students will continue their business despite humbling challenges.
Market as Teacher. Entrepreneurship uses the market as a teacher. It may not always be forgiving, but it is the closest thing you can get to the real world. It gives students the confidence that they can succeed outside of the class as an entrepreneur, and teaches them lessons, successes, and challenges that it would be impossible for them to foresee by only creating a business plan.
Learn Knowledge at a Gut Level. A different level of learning goes on when you lose your own money or time because of a mistake. You don’t forget. You learn.
Resume Builder. Starting a business is an activity that students can put on their resume to differentiate themselves. It also gives them an "owner” perspective that can help them be more successful should they decide to take a job, with skills like accountability, reliability, and commitment to the success of an organization.
Furthermore, the exercise of launching businesses is beneficial for instructors because of:
Increased Student Motivation. Students are more motivated, because what begins as a project for class has the possibility to turn into a real business. There is immediate real world application, so students see the relevance of classroom material and apply it immediately to their business enterprise.
Student Success Stories. Having successful student entrepreneurs who got started in their entrepreneurship class motivates other students to take the class and start their own businesses. Success stories can also serve as tools to get exposure for your entrepreneurship program in the local media and among funders. In the end, when students from these classes become successful entrepreneurs, they will be more likely to give back. As they get invited to speak publicly about their success, they will share how they got started in your entrepreneurship program.
It has become a typical path for college students to take part in internships and part-time jobs as a way to transition into full-time work. Shouldn’t future entrepreneurs have a similar opportunity to transition to full-time entrepreneurship? The classroom is the perfect environment with peer and instructor support for students to start their journey into entrepreneurship.
Michael Simmons, a former keynote speaker at NACCE, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org