How Universities Should Teach Entrepreneurship: Lessons for the Future Silicon Alley U

virgilia singh How Universities Should Teach Entrepreneurship: Lessons for the Future Silicon Alley U

Ms. Singh.

With all the tech campus proposals demonstrating how innovation is creeping its way into education, we wonder, can entrepreneurship be taught? While university programs that offer entrepreneurship programs would love you to think so, reality shows that isn’t necessarily the case. 

Entrepreneurship education must follow a pragmatic (theory + practice) approach in order for it to work. So how do you embed entrepreneurial thinking into the DNA of the naturally bureaucratic beasts that are universities? From my experience of working with an American university of approximately 70,000 full-time and part-time students, I’d suggest the following:

Think local. What may work in Silicon Valley may not apply to the rest of the world. Think about what industries are emerging locally and what expertise exists locally. For instance, in the case of New York City, according to the NYC Economic Development Corp., the booming target industries are:

1) Arts, Not-For-Profit & Higher Education
2) Bioscience
3) Clean Tech & Energy
4) Fashion
5) Financial Services
6) Industrial
7) Media & Emerging Tech

So how can local universities strategically align themselves with the city’s overall growth?

Mentorship. Universities should create networks of local experts that harness local industry expertise, and bring these industry/startup folk into the university so that students can learn from their ACTUAL experiences. This can be done through brownbags, workshops, demo nights, hack nights, any event that allows for offline collaboration. Mentoring occurs naturally when students and experts have the ability to meet in person.

Experience matters. Each department should act as a pipeline into entrepreneurship. For instance, health and nursing departments should partner with local small businesses within the healthcare space to give their students hands-on experience working with individuals who started healthcare companies. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Students get the desired experience and connections, small business owners get matched with ambitious young people who they could potential hire or invest in after graduation, and universities get guaranteed retention and marketing opportunities.

Listen to the young. Universities many times forget to listen to their main audience–students! An unhappy student = unhappy alum = less alumni donations + poor branding. Hold “town-hall” like sessions with your already entrepreneurial-minded students and survey them to see what they a) like, b) don’t like and c) would like to see happen.

Feedback. Many times entreprenurial-minded students want to get some press, so universities should work closely with local media to make sure that their students are getting some media love.

Educate the old-school. Most faculty aren’t entrepreneurs–they are researchers. Before even allowing faculty who haven’t started or led their own businesses, it’s important to have internal sessions that allow all faculty who will be embedding entrepreneurship to have reccuring sessions with local entrepreneurs. Sort of like “Startup Weekend” sessions for Ph.Ds.

Faculty should educated on the new ways of doing businesses. I’ve encountered so many students who don’t understand the power of blogging and creating online brands for themselves during college. Simply understanding the new online tools that exist (i.e. Tumblr and Twitter) and then partnering this new knowledge with startup methodology (i.e. lean startup method, business models) faculty will have a more effective way of helping their students understand the various facets of entrepreneurship.

Treat new programs as startups. Don’t worry if a program doesn’t work out! If you fail, move on and learn from those mistakes. Test out an idea to see if it works, model someone else’s successes, and spread the concept throughout its entire ecosystem:

1) Idea
2) Validation
3) Test
4) Understand your audience
5) If you fail, fail fast and learn quickly
6) Move on or implement

Drop out or graduate. Entrepreneurship and graduation can occur together.  If universities are scared of people like Peter Thiel steering their students away from graduating, well then make it easy for them to start their businesses.

For instance, imagine a superstar electrical engineering major has successfully started a music company that is taking him out of the country for months at a time. He is however still interested in finishing his degree. The university should let him take courses online or even use the time devoted to the business as a Capstone project. There are obviously many other ways of going around the red tape, but universities have to be willing to be flexible.

Just like any relationship, what makes entrepreneurship and education work together is openness and collaboration. If universities and industry folk alike are willing to cooperate, then there is only room for innovation, and all the other great buzz words that follow.