Teaching to start up?

Entrepreneurship education appears to be experiencing a boom. And entrepreneurial modules or training programs are no longer only in the territory of business schools, but they have mushroomed across faculties. They are offered also at incubators and even brought to the public by local administrations and governments. These programs have also flourished in the on-line realm. As an example, Steve Blank’s  lean startup MOOC lists today 262,229 students.

If we look at policy-makers, the topic ranks high in the agenda also. The European Commision made it clear:

Education for entrepreneurship is already high on the agenda in most EU Member States. A wide variety of programmes and activities exist across Europe. However, there is a need of promoting these initiatives more systematically. The European Commission is committed to promoting education for entrepreneurship at all levels, from primary school to university and beyond.

Wow, even primary school!

However, despite its popularity, devising entrepreneurial programs or introducing entrepreneurship modules in existing programs of any kind is really challenging. One popular approach is “simply doing”, that is, teaching through the process of actually creating (or simulating the creation) of an actual business. The current motto of the Startup Weekend network follows this idea very literally:

No talk. All action. Launch a startup in 54 hours.

While this is clearly a declaration of principles, not every educational program on entrepreneurship goes so straight.


(btw, something bad happened with the written accent in “Córdoba”…)

Is this the “right” approach? Is there any actual “right approach” for entrepreneurial education? Well, it all depends on the ultimate aims of such kind of education, be it increasing the number of entrepreneurs or simply providing some knowledge on business creation for non-entrepreneurs.

I came across a recent article by Blenker et al. in the Education+Training journal that provides a good informed analysis of entrepreneurial education research. The authors conclude that:

Research […] is fragmented both conceptually and methodologically.

This is concluded on the basis of a total of 88 research articles with significant empirical contributions between 2000 and 2012. However, a 48% of these papers come from UK, plus anothet 21% from other European countries, so what we can find in the literature is not witouth some bias. It is also noticeable that the authors assess as follows the methods used:

The vast majority of both quantitative and qualitative studies only use descriptive data analysis techniques; more advanced forms of data analyses are rarely used.

So, it seems that research is still not mature enough to inform practice thoroughly.

Looking at practical outcomes, it is also difficult to assess the extent to which entrepreneurial education actually fosters the creation of startups. In another article of the same journal by Liv Anne Storen, a survey among 2,827 Higher Education graduates found that:

The proportion of entrepreneurship graduates that are self-employed is very low and is not higher than from other graduates.

While that conclusion can not be generalized as it is limited to Norwegian graduates and it differs significantly from other European studies, it highlights the importance of measuring the outcomes of educational programs. In any case, this could be seen as a failure if and only if increasing the number of entrepreneurs was the sole aim of these programs, which is not the case.

My conclusion is that devising an entrepreneurial program, module or course is not really straightforward. Despite the many experiences and programs available, they focus very differently on what is an entrepreneur (many focusing on high-tech, fast growing companies that may not be appealing to every student), duration, educational methods and even in the short, medium or long-term aims sought.

An important problem often neglected is in the terminology. Entrepreneurs are considered as a particular kind of business founders that “uses innovation to bring a new or existing resource to market”. For those of us in the Internet business, most of the companies that become quickly popular in the news attmpt to be of that kind. However, not every founder is an entrepreneur, and this is something that is confusing when reading about entrepreneurial education. One should carefully think the extent to which our thinking on entrepreneurship is influenced by the model of Internet entrepreneurs (which also has no clear boundaries, e.g. Wikipedia creators are business owners?). And this is also an interesting Web Science topic.

And my final recommendation if you are interested in entrepreneurial education is starting from the framework and guidance published in 2012 by the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, it gives a broad view and helps in taking perspective on the topic!