To Teach Entrepreneurship Get Out of the Classroom

Richard Branson

The debate about whether or not you can teach entrepreneurship will always divide opinion. But business schools have an opportunity to create the conditions in which an entrepreneurial mindset can flourish, and provide students with the tools and the confidence to take the path toward business creation. They just might not need a classroom to do it.

Three key ingredients to train and develop entrepreneurial thinking are a supportive network, outstanding mentors, and personal reflection, according to entrepreneurship researcher Norris Krueger, speaking at the World Entrepreneurship Forum in Singapore. The co-founding business schools of the event, EMLyon and Nanyang Technological University, have understood that, beyond teaching core business skills, the interaction with business leaders and social entrepreneurs provides a massive learning opportunity for their students.

Hearing from Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, or a Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian, or even the Amazonian tribal chief who persuaded Google to support his rain forest protection program, inspires students at the event to believe they can also create change. You could hear a pin drop as Ashish Takkar, winner of the forum’s Young Entrepreneur for the World Award, described surviving the terror of the Rwandan genocide, which left his family with just the clothes on their backs, and starting his first company at the age of 15, flying to Dubai every weekend to buy computer hardware that he then sold back in Uganda.

Seventeen years later, Takkar’s Mara Group is actively involved in everything from manufacturing to agriculture to IT, with total assets in excess of $1 billion and more than 7,500 employees across 26 African countries. Understanding the importance of mentoring, Takkar created the Mara Foundation to focus on providing mentorship, funding, incubation, and business training to help transform entrepreneurs’ ideas into thriving business entities.

The story of Daniel Gómez Iñiguez building a biodiesel empire in Mexico by the age of 22—or Nanxi Lu, co-founder of the interactive digital billboards company Enplug, telling the audience “Don’t wait for the door of opportunity to open, just build your own door”—leaves listeners feeling they also have what it takes and can accept the risks inherent in a startup.

But it’s the lessons learned by these successful individuals that offer the real insight for would-be entrepreneurs, not the war stories. So once off the stage, speakers engaged in master classes to share their wisdom and answer questions. Importantly, they shared the microphone with small business owners, the often overlooked pillars of the economy, whose experience and advice is just as valuable, and within reach.

For hands-on learning, students were also encouraged to take responsibility for junior World Entrepreneurship Forums in cities around the world. Handing over the keys will be counterintuitive for many business schools, but that’s the direction they need to take if they want to foster a creative ecosystem. Not only does the experience provide valuable lessons in delivering on commitments, it also provides a networking platform for connections with like-minded individuals. Sometimes it’s good to know you’re not alone.

For Bruno Bonnel, president of EMLyon, and himself a successful entrepreneur whose IT company bought video game pioneer Atari (ATA:FP) in 2001, events such as the World Entrepreneurship Forum, and indeed the MBA itself, are the opportunity for self-reflection. They represent a rare opportunity to ask yourself where you really want to be headed, and who you want to share that path with.

So while finance, accounting, marketing, and other core courses remain the domain of the classroom, when it comes to building new businesses maybe B-schools should focus less on teaching and more on creating the conditions that would allow would-be entrepreneurs to flourish.

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