It’s the destiny of our future graduates to tackle some of society’s most urgent and pressing challenges. Entrepreneurs have the power to shape the world by developing versatile skill sets and profitable businesses that are crucial to the progress of our economies.
But just how does one learn to be a successful entrepreneur? How do we inspire our young people to go out there and keep learning so they can make their mark on the world? I believe we need to dedicate more resources to the formation of entrepreneurial environments within higher education – environments that foster progressive ideas and innovation, and equip students with the practical knowledge and skills they need to navigate the choppy waters of business ownership.
Why entrepreneurship and its associated skills are important
Entrepreneurs are a valuable asset to any country. They should be cultivated and nurtured – not given extra obstacles to overcome. Entrepreneurial ventures have the potential to shape the way we live and work, in addition to creating jobs and contributing to the nation’s economy.
Our brightest entrepreneurs have very particular skills. They are great communicators. They understand the power of branding. They have an aptitude for sales and business strategy and they know how to keep a handle on their finances. These qualities are desirable in any citizen, whether they’re a business owner or employee. But they can’t be learned overnight – it takes time to become a one-man-or-woman show. So it’s best to get started as early as possible.
Any career path requires training, whether you’re an accountant, an office manager, or an airline pilot. Becoming an entrepreneur is no different. The skills required to be good at entrepreneurship are not exclusive – they can be applied to almost any field of work. Surely, entrepreneurial teaching as part of higher education could benefit everyone?
Entrepreneurialism in education as it stands
Many of us are introduced to the concepts of business and entrepreneurship by our parents. It certainly requires a healthy amount of courage and persistence, best acquired at a young and impressionable age.
In the US, small business management and entrepreneurship courses at college and university level have grown in number and diversity since 1990, led by students’ dissatisfaction with the traditional focus on obtaining Fortune 500 careers. Historically a key factor in driving economic growth, it is now the case that the majority of leading US businesses are less than 20-30 years old. This renewal is at the heart of a healthy economy.
By contrast, here in Europe, most of our top companies have been in business for a century or more. If we want to spur growth and the creation of jobs, it’s clear we need a greater focus on entrepreneurship and innovation – and this starts by nurturing the skills and dreams of our young innovators. In Europe, the barriers to entry for first-time entrepreneurs are thought to be higher than in the US. But what about elsewhere in the world?
Global comparison: how different countries support their entrepreneurs
Innovation flourishes best in countries with a strong ‘startup mentality’. Around 4 in 10 small companies don’t make it past the first five years, therefore countries who give extra support to their entrepreneurs ensure they have the best chance of success. But which country is best? Well, it depends on your sources.
According to usnews.com, the best countries for entrepreneurs are Germany, Japan, US, UK, Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, Singapore, Australia and the Netherlands. This conclusion is drawn from how much each country spends on its research and development every year. A separate report from economonitor.com pins China and India as two of the most hostile environments for new entrepreneurs.
Another source – venturebeat.com – asks entrepreneurs from around the world rank their country’s startup environment. In its results, Canada was the only nation in the world that ranked highly for every statement. The United Kingdom still ranked in the top 10, along with the US. Of course, this approach comes down to the feelings of the individual entrepreneurs, rather than more objective data.
The Atlantic surmises that America prides itself on its entrepreneurial streak, yet points out that its startup rate is actually lower than many other countries, including Sweden, Israel, and Italy.
So, different sources appear to tell us different stories. But one thing is certain: it’s not enough to have a revolutionary idea or outstanding technical prowess if your country is up to its neck in extortive tax laws, or doesn’t support entrepreneurial ideals. The majority of those with potential will simply not try.
Signs that things are changing
Yes, things are indeed changing. A quick online search yields all manner of entrepreneurial courses and training – mostly aimed at young people. And it makes sense, because whether or not that young person eventually becomes an entrepreneur, there is much benefit to having a grounding in business basics.
The issue with entrepreneurship courses? As with so much in academia, the focus can often become the grade, rather than truly learning and mastering the skills needed for creating a successful business. Ideally, we need our top successful entrepreneurs to be willing to share how they did it. We need the voice of real experience. These are the people we should be inviting to speak at institutions of higher education.
Thanks to the internet, the barriers to entry for setting up a digital business are much lower than they used to be. One can set up an online business in a matter of hours, without any coding skills or web design skills whatsoever. Online training resources such as Lynda.com give us almost everything we need to develop business, technology, and creative skills. The reality is that self-directed learning has never been easier. So do we even need universities and colleges to guide us?
What higher education institutions could do better
Universities in both the UK and US are failing to meet the expectations of their increasingly digitally focused students. But if we ever want to reach the same level of growth we had pre-financial crisis, we need entrepreneurs more than ever. We have a duty to cultivate strong innovators. So can universities adapt their learning systems to meet the challenge?
Today’s education system is far too focused on the theoretical, rather than developing real problem-solving skills. The focus is on writing papers and making grades, not maximising employability and experience. Many of our top graduates arrive in their first jobs with reams of theoretical knowledge, but no real-life skills, taking an average of 9-12 months to start adding value to the company they work for. Our top universities are busy churning out bankers, when they should be prioritising young pioneers.
So what’s the solution? In my opinion, we need more work experience. Opportunities for students to work at not just one, but a variety of different startups and businesses, to give them hands-on experience. What’s more, we need to encourage opportunities in up-and-coming industries like technology and sustainability. We need to turn the focus from purely theoretical to practical, and we need to subsidise theses programmes so they’re affordable.
The entrepreneurial skill set is one learned through experience. To nurture our entrepreneurs, we must aim to create cultures of innovation. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and these changes to the status quo in some of our more ‘traditional’ institutions will not happen overnight. It’s a step-by-step process, but one that is worth pursuing if we hope to produce a generation that will be capable of solving some of the very real challenges facing our society and our planet today.
Victoria Greene is a full-time entrepreneur and freelance writer. Her journey to this point took many twists and turns – with multiple insights emerging along the way. Read more on her blog.