Thursday, November 19, 2009

Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

I attended the annual LP meeting for a venture capital firm this week and got into a discussion about the above question. Seems like a good question to ponder given that I spend several hours each week as a professor of Entrepreneurship.

At a high level, I definitely agree that being an entrepreneur and being in school don't necessarily mix. Most of us know of Exhibits 1 (Bill Gates) and 2 (Mark Zuckerberg) from Harvard, but I have met dozens of other successful entrepreneurs who felt a greater need to get going on an opportunity than to wait around to complete a degree.

However, for most of the rest of us, the analytical skills honed in college or grad school, along with the opportunity to network and explore different fields prove invaluable later. With that in mind, I created a new course at San Jose State last year, the Entrepreneurship Lab (E-Lab). The seminar course combined an internship at a start-up or venture firm with classroom learning and sharing of experiences. There was an application and interview process to be admitted to the class so I was able to have a diverse group of students with varied educational and work backgrounds. Business, Engineering, Computer Science, and Design were all represented.

I'm teaching the class again this coming semester and held an information session for prospective students this week. I had several of the students from E-Lab I come to share their experience with those interested in applying for E-Lab II (went with the Super Bowl numbering scheme to see if I can convince the powers that be to make this a permanent part of the curriculum). I was blown away by some of the testimonials of how the course was a career and life altering experience for the students. I realized that opportunities like this are so rare and students don't get enough of this type of experiential education.

Here are a couple of quotes from the students:

"The internship provoked by thinking and challenged me to pursue my interests with more drive and determination. The opportunity provided by the [E-Lab] has been truly inspiring. And now I know exactly where I want to spend my time"

"This internship truly provide me an entry point into the private equity world. I am still not certain about exactly what I would like to do for the next 30 years, but I am certain that it will have something to do with funding/valuing/investing in start-up companies."
I think something else they liked was that there was no final exam, since in the real world, you are judged by the market and investors rather than on a grading curve...Instead, we spent the designated exam time with a final debriefing of the semester at Gordon Biersch brewpub (see below)

Special shout-out to Dan Gordon, founder of Gordon Biersch, who has been a great supporter of our entrepreneurship program at SJSU and is hosting my Entrepreneurial Finance class at the brewery next week.

If you are interested in getting involved in the E-Lab, there are a few opportunities. If you are an SJSU student, the priority application deadline is December 10 and you can find more information and an application here. If you are interested in hosting an intern, we will be accepting employer applications in December and January for internships beginning in February. If you are interested in sponsoring the course, would love to hear from you as being part of a state institution in California provides its own special challenges.

Now back to the question at hand. Entrepreneurship can be taught, but the jury is out on whether you can teach someone to be an entrepreneur. However, I've seen a number of students not find their entrepreneurial DNA until exposed to the content and guest speakers in the entrepreneurial program. That's enough to keep me teaching!


Tim Yoon said...

Thank you for posting this.

I'm a Duke undergraduate who'll be taking a class on social entrepreneurship next year, and it's great to see things from a professor's point of view beforehand.

I had two questions:

Do you find that the students who make entrepreneurial ventures do so in an area that they are already familiar with?

And what would you consider to be core values that every entrepreneur should keep in mind? Or are there core values at all?

Steve Bennet said...

Tim, Thanks for stopping by ProfessorVC for virtual office hours...I almost went to Duke. Made it to my final two, but went with Penn.

I do find that students generally start companies in areas they are familiar with for a couple of reasons. One, you need to be passionate about your idea and it is hard to be passionate about something with which you are unfamiliar. You are going to be spending most of your waking hours building the company and if you aren't passionate, it will be impossible. Two, you need to have some domain expertise. If you don't already have some level of expertise in the area, you'll need to go get it, probably through a combination of research and possibly an internship. Most companies are started to address a problem faced either in the workplace or as a consumer.

Asking about core values is a great question. I generally get asked about skills required (leadership, tolerance for ambiguity, risk taking, persistence, opportunity recognition, etc.), but values are often more important.

I'll put honesty and integrity at the top of the list. These are just for entrepreneurs, but will serve you well in any future endeavor. However, in the start-up world, they are essential. The whole process of building companies revolves around recognizing an opportunity, assembling the resources, building the company and harvesting the venture. Most successful entrepreneurs will repeat this process many times. If you are not transparent with your investors, you won't raise money the second time around, regardless of whether you were successful or not successful the first time. While Silicon Valley covers a large amount of turf, it is very small. If you have a reputation for cutting corners, not treating employees or partners right, it will become very difficult to do business.

Hope this was helpful and that you enjoy your social entrepreneurship class next semester.

Weasel1 said...

No entrepreneurship can not be taught. It must be experienced and suffered to feel the strength of the whirlpool that the entrepreneur will find themselves in. They must live, breathe, sleep, and be one with the startups ups and downs. You can't do it half way. It must be done with 100% emersion.

LK said...

Great job, Professor Bennet! I would definitely have applied had there been a program while I was attending school. Thanks to you, immediately after I graduated I went on a few assignments for Glazer Capital which gave me the necessary experience that eventually led to my first "real" job out of college as a Pharmaceutical Sales Rep.

In terms of entrepreneurship, I think that SJSU is behind. We need a program that not only has a speaker series and mentor program, but also fosters collaboration among the Engineering and Business departments. Ideas exist there (Groupon) but most never get past the concept stage because there is no outreach for students to get their idea off the ground.

Steve Bennet said...

LK, Always good to hear from former students. Collaboration with engineering, computer science, life sciences, etc. is a big goal of ours at SJSU. The charter of the SVCE (Silicon Valley Center for Entrepreneurship) is to work with all of the colleges in fostering entrepreneurship.

Ludi said...

I think some of the core skills and competencies of entrepreneurs can be taught through experiential learning opps like your e-lab course but there's nothing like actually doing it yourself. I graduated from George Mason University with a self-designed degree in social entrepreneurship, choosing to focus on internships and courses that went beyond scantron tests and final powerpoint presentations.

But honestly, once I graduated and went to work for a start-up, none of it mattered. I've learned more in the three months working with a real-life entrepreneur on a new venture than in all 5 years of Community College and my BA.

But taking an "entrepreneurial" approach to my education did give me the familiarity with ambiguity and the ability to thrive in chaos that is critical in a start-up environment.

Steve Bennet said...

Ludi, Thanks for sharing your experience. You definitely can't get a full appreciation for life in a start-up until you are on the inside. I'm doing a new academic experiment now - an incubator at Menlo College where we are bringing the start-ups to campus and giving the students an opportunity to see how they develop and work as interns. Will write about this in an upcoming post.

Lafayette Jefferson said...

Can entrepreneurship be taught? You cannot teach the desire, passion or drive, - but you can inspire it with the right environment. For those with the "eat and breath, do or die" intangibles of entrepreneurship, you can show them how to increase the probability of being successful through effectively focused training.
I’ve heard many entrepreneurs talk about their success and how it happened back in the 70s. The business environment is much more complex today, and the hopeful entrepreneur need to understand more of the environment in which they will operate. They need to have a place where they can gain an understanding of their different options for financing the venture, how to determine exactly what is needed in the marketplace, how to negotiate, how to read contracts, the role of technology, how to write a business plan, understand what your ratios are saying. What kind of environment can a person gain this knowledge – A school of entrepreneurship.

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