If you’re reading this, chances are that you want to be the next Mark Zuckerburg, Andrew Mason or Jack Dorsey. You’re not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, over 550,000 new small businesses are created every year in America. Business schools (including Richard Ivey School of Business that I attend) are trying to capitalize on this trend by including entrepreneurship streams in their curriculum.
But this brings up the age-old debate: can entrepreneurship be taught or can it only be developed by doing? Some say no. In a recent Under30CEO post, Marc Brodeur pointed out that grad schools in general are “passive, intellectual and theoretical discipline.” But, in my opinion, the answer is both yes and no.
The best class is the real life
My initial gut reaction to the question is ‘no.’ Like Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group and more than 400 companies, I believe that success as an entrepreneur depends on personal traits and skills that can only be honed on the job. In my experience and my discussions with other entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs have this intense passion, discipline and resiliency to overcome any obstacles, failures and especially rejections. Entrepreneurs are also resolute when it comes to achieving success despite of the hoards of doubters and haters, yet they are humble enough to admit mistakes and pivot the business if need be. The attributes of an entrepreneur cannot be learned but only be developed as you work through the startup creation process.
Not only that, even though the Lean Startup method does provide a structured approach to building a startup, entrepreneurship is messy and chaotic. There are rarely clear-cut yes or no decisions. Raw conflicts can develop between co-founders and investors. Motivation and commitment is a big issue with startup teams when no one is getting paid and everyone is busy with a full-time job, school or family. To sum it up, entrepreneurship is like surgery in the midst of an earthquake. That’s not something business schools can teach you. You have to experience it.
But, on the upside, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Failure is the key success indicator of an entrepreneur. You just have to get up and try again (another trait you can’t teach in business schools).
What can be taught in graduate school
On the other hand, there are aspects of entrepreneurship that can be taught, which includes such basic business knowledge as sales, marketing, operations processes, and finance. Certain business schools now also offer experiential learning or new venture projects that allows students to create a startup (more on that later). Through business cases, guest speakers and key writings, you can also learn best practices and avoid common pitfalls made by other entrepreneurs. Business schools are also a great way to connect with advisors and potential investors. A strong alumni network can get you into the doors of investors and other successful entrepreneurs. Just as a school like The Juilliard School can polish a talented young musician and possibly get him or her on the way to a fantastic career, so can entrepreneurship programs polish a prospective entrepreneur and increase the likelihood of success.
The best example of this concept is none other than Steve Blank. Steve Blank was the founder of the Customer Development movement, which was the precursor of Eric Ries’ Lean Startup method. Blank created one of the most interesting higher level course at Stanford called Lean LaunchPad. Blank communicated to the group of science, business and technology students that the goal of the course is to teach the skills to get out of the building, build a company and get orders in ten weeks. How awesome is that! The learnings of each of the teams are available in Steve Blank’s blog. If you haven’t already done so, you need to check out the great work that Steve Blank is doing. A sample of one of team’s learnings is below.
So, can entrepreneurship be taught? The personal traits and team dynamics are aspects that can’t be taught. But, Steve Blank’s course is a great example that certain aspects of entrepreneurship can be taught in business schools and other post-graduate programs. But, you shouldn’t wait until you get admitted to a graduate school before you start working on your startup. Stop being a wantrapreneur and get out and build your idea!
I want to hear what you think. Can entrepreneurship be taught in graduate school?
Ramli John is co-founder of Lesson Sensei, a Toronto-based startup that helps people connect with ‘Senseis’, people who are masters at the craft, to learn fun and interesting things like sushi-making, doing a backflip or drifting a car. He recently just started his MBA at Ivey School of Business in London, Ontario.