If there’s one thing I am certain of, it’s that we need more entrepreneurs. The future of our country is dependent on the jobs they create and the solutions they innovate. But how do we mint more entrepreneurs? That’s something no one is really certain of — though plenty are trying to figure it out.
Many schools are bolstering their entrepreneurship offerings. Business has long been the most popular major and now classes that focus specifically on entrepreneurship are being added to the roster.
Last week, I spoke at Arizona State University, which recently announced an undergraduate degree in entrepreneurship to start in the Fall. That’s great. It’s important to learn the practical implications of business, and lessons on fundraising or go to market strategies will provide useful underpinnings for any entrepreneur.
But can you really train entrepreneurs? That’s tricky when there’s no real formula. Entrepreneurs don’t conform to the norms of society and they are willing to take risks most sane people would not take. Building a business is hard work and the sense of urgency and excitement is difficult to recreate in a classroom. How can you fail multiple times and not lose faith? How do you press ahead when everyone tells you that you have a bad idea? Many of the most important qualities of entrepreneurship — vision, creativity, courage, scrappiness, risk-taking — are innate, and then tested and practiced on the field of battle.
In a way, an undergraduate major is a bit at odds with the fact that so many of the most celebrated entrepreneurs didn’t complete their undergraduate degrees. And entrepreneurship courses would not have kept any of the famous dropouts — Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Aaron Levie, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Kevin Rose, and Mark Zuckerberg — in school. Their ideas were too big and they were too impatient.
Peter Thiel, the Pay Pal co-founder-turned-VC who did finish college and teaches a class at Stanford argues that undergraduate education as a whole is out of date and overvalued. The Thiel Fellowship gives individuals who are 17-20 years old $100,000 and asks them to take two years away from college so that they can fully focus on their entrepreneurial endeavors.
Thiel believes that for some people with burning ideas whose time has come, college can be an opportunity cost.
It’s possible that there is a similar possible opportunity cost associated with studying entrepreneurship as an undergraduate. Your four years in college are one of the only times in your life that you can explore academic subjects ranging from medieval history to biochemistry, from semiotics to sociology. It’s a time meant to explore various ideas and to dive into whatever intrigues you intellectually. Steve Jobs famously spoke of the importance of a calligraphy course at Reed as being influential in designing the Mac. Parker Harris, a co-founder of Salesforce.com majored in English Literature at Middlebury College and speaks of the importance of developing that part of his brain.
What we are really talking about here is the age-old question: Are entrepreneurs born or made? I think they are born, but that doesn’t mean there are not ways to help them hone their skills and make them more successful. Maybe for some it will take academic courses in startup studies. Maybe for others it will be time off from school. Just like everything in the world of entrepreneurship, there’s no magic formula, but it benefits all of us to encourage people to be brave enough to think creatively about new ways to solve problems and to respect and appreciate them for being bold enough to passionately pursue them.