Can we (please) teach entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship has become a symbol in our capitalist society, yet it still remains an elusive goal for the majority.

British entrepreneur Richard Branson wal
Entrepreneurship is perhaps the unwavering commitment to live or die by your own persistence and abilities [AFP]

Entrepreneurship has become one of the most recognisable words in the world over the last ten to twenty years, and with good reason.

It has become a symbol for the premier achievement in our capitalist society; that of owning, creating and running your own business. Almost everybody would like to do it, yet it still remains an elusive goal for the vast majority of the world’s population.

When you hear the real life stories of people like Sir Richard Branson, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg, you realise entrepreneurship is not just something you can claim on a resume to describe the time you sold T-shirts on your college campus.

True entrepreneurs would never think of putting the E word on a resume, because it would be anathema to the very idea of entrepreneurship in the first place. True entrepreneurs would never think of using the title as a status symbol, because they don’t have to.

What is entrepreneurship?

So what does an entrepreneur do that sets them apart from a baker, mechanic or graphic designer?

Entrepreneurship, in its purest sense, is perhaps the unwavering commitment to live or die by your own persistence and abilities.

It is the fire to wake up every morning and be excited about doing what you truly want to create; it is the ability to bypass drama and wasted energy, and instead focus all of your intention on your true purpose and career goals. It is the fearlessness to trust in your own ability, your own creativity, and your own resourcefulness when others would ask a superior for help, or consult the closest manual for direction. It is the entrepreneurs who are not afraid to write their own manuals, and who are not worried about whether or not it will be accepted by the majority of the population.

“At an entrepreneur’s core, that’s what they do: they make it happen. Bakers might become entrepreneurs if nobody’s hiring, but only to serve their passion for baking 

Magazine publisher Jim Warren was the pioneering entrepreneur behind legendary publications like Famous Movie Monsters of Hollywood and Vampirella.

In his heyday, Warren was able to take an unpopular product – horror comics – and transform them into something marketable and lucrative through a simple repackaging effort. Warren’s strategy involved selling comics in magazine form and selling his own stock of novelty items through ads in the back of the book as opposed to pursuing advertisers reluctant to jump into bed with a horror publisher.

He hired the best artists and writers he could afford and, along with editor Forrest J Ackerman, ushered in a new era of fandom that made it okay to call yourself a geek. In his office you’d find a framed plaque reading “Somebody has to make it happen”.

At an entrepreneur’s core, that’s what they do: They make it happen. Bakers might become entrepreneurs if nobody’s hiring, but only to serve their passion for baking. In some cases the entrepreneur will hire the baker, rent out the storefront and buy the ovens. In other cases the entrepreneur might never even see the bakery in person. They might simply put together the funding and hire a good business manager.

What an entrepreneur also shines in is ideas. Every business they launch might not be based on an idea of their own and they might not be just an idea-man working behind the scenes.

There are entrepreneurs who put someone else’s idea into practice before putting more sweat into the business than any of the people they hire, but at the core of the entrepreneurial spirit is the drive to take a good idea and bring it to life.

When we think of entrepreneurship in this way, then it becomes clear that the unmistakable ethos of entrepreneurship usually becomes visible at an early age. We can all imagine mid-level managers in a company, who, although they may be good at their jobs, lack something that can sometimes be visible in children as young as 13 or 14. Yet that spark, that spirit that drives you to start your first lemonade stand, is in all of us.

The problem is we’re taught to do what’s safe, what’s guaranteed to work, rather than risk our time, effort and money on ideas that might fail.

So often entrepreneurship can be the difference between one person who follows the rules, goes to school, gets good grades, gets a good job, and gets a decent salary, and the person who shuns school altogether, listens to no one and ends up creating a brand new product that goes on to change the world.

So why isn’t everyone an entrepreneur?

Public schools, colleges and your first job teaches you to keep your head down and do your work. Much of our society is built around an outdated industrial model where anyone can be taught to do your job, where you essentially serve as a cog in a machine, and where showing up on time is more important than any of the insights or creativity that you can bring to the table. The difference today is that unlike generations past where you could get by quite well just by doing what you were told, the world’s top companies are constantly looking for people that do just the opposite; they break the rules and innovate beyond conventional training.

So can we teach entrepreneurship? And more importantly, how?

In an interview with a documentary maker, Sir Richard Branson’s mother reveals that Branson was actually incredibly shy in his early childhood. In an effort to push him to be more outgoing, she came up with an entrepreneurial idea of her own: Dropping her son off three miles from home and telling him that he would have to talk to people and ask directions to find his way back. Extreme?

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Sure, but this sink or swim approach to child rearing turned a shy child who literally hid behind his mother’s skirt into one of the most daring entrepreneurs of our time.

The habits of a successful entrepreneur are also being taught in MBA programmes across the country. As Dean Hubbard of Columbia Business School puts forth in his speech about the 21st century MBA, “the goal is not to have a data dump of functional skills, but to create a process that teaches people how to recognise opportunity – and capture it” (full disclosure: Columbia Business School is my alma mater).

Unquestionably there seems to be an un-teachable element in the spirit of entrepreneurship that has driven many great success stories. Some may argue that schooling can, at best, only be described as prepping the canvas for the painter.

You can tell the artist where to buy the paints, give them some tips on fundamental art principles, and then provide examples of what people have done in the past. But the actual act of launching the initiative and coming up with the idea that will live on beyond even the creators life itself, is something that just cannot be taught by any stretch of the imagination.

Perhaps you can call it creativity, imagination, or pure passion, but the fact remains that, although you can have the largest canvas and paint collection on earth, it still takes an artist to create something beautiful.

Those exceptions aside, many people are left with no choice but to learn how to be entrepreneurial. The pace at which the number of doors are opening, and that are continuing to open throughout the world, is staggering. As the economy and the idea of a career evolve over the next decade or two, “entrepreneur” may be the only job title left.

As pointed out by entrepreneur Scott Gerber, according to a 2011 survey, some 23 percent of young people who have started a business have done so simply because of difficulty in finding a job. We’re already in a sink or swim scenario with youth employment at a sixty year low.

Parents may get the ball rolling; high school may get the aspiring entrepreneurs feet wet; universities may lay golden fields of opportunity, connections, and resources at ones fingertips; but the most important part of the journey will always remain with the entrepreneur.

We may build the bridges, pave the roads, and open the doors for you, but it is you, the entrepreneur, that will always have to be the one to walk through.

Post-war education was designed to place people in large companies where they would find a secure salary. Sadly, that’s still what school is largely for, even as these companies downsize, collapse and disappear from the economic landscape, causing layoffs to be at record highs. Not only can we teach people to think entrepreneurially, we need to.

Goutham Bhadri is the CEO of Marketing Samurai, LLC, a New York digital marketing agency. He also helped launch Switch2Health. He is a graduate of the LSE, and completed his MBA at Columbia Business School.