Entrepreneurs can be ‘made’ through education

It is broadly agreed that the economic growth of this country is heavily dependent upon our ability to encourage more people to start up businesses.

We are particularly in need of more indigenous enterprises capable of selling innovative products and services internationally.

However, many myths persist about the concept of entrepreneurship. Some of these were evident in a recent Irish Examiner article entitled, ‘We should encourage a culture of risk-taking’.

The article, by Joe Gill, used a range of emotive expressions to build an argument that “entrepreneurship classes are not the answer” as he suggested that “so-called business schools internationally have hijacked” entrepreneurship and that the skills relating to it “are not the property of the silver spoon classes”.

He also indicated that the “skills needed to be an entrepreneur rarely lie in study courses”.

These arguments are built on perception rather than fact and serve only to fuel some of the myths surrounding entrepreneurship.

The notion entrepreneurs are born and not made is false, as statistically more people who are considered ‘push entrepreneurs’ (people who would not see themselves as natural entrepreneurs) will start a business rather than ‘pull entrepreneurs’ (natural entrepreneurs). The number of ‘push entrepreneurs’ is even greater in today’s economic environment as many people who have become redundant turn to starting their own business in the hope of generating an income for themselves.

The idea that entrepreneurs are better off not taking higher education or entrepreneurship courses is also factually incorrect, as international research by the GEM Consortium clearly highlights that the more education a person receives, the more likely they are to start their own business. There is also a strong body of research which highlights that people who take entrepreneurship courses are more likely to start their own business, be successful and employ more people.

There is also a statement in the article that “small business owners often eschew third-level education to allow space for their company” but the reality is that there has been a dramatic increase in recent years in executive education for entrepreneurs, and a large proportion of graduate programmes in business now carry courses in entrepreneurship to satisfy customer demand.

The number of courses in entrepreneurship across all colleges has risen substantially over the past decade as students at all levels of higher education request entrepreneurship as part of their learning. Many universities and institutes of technology are now providing entrepreneurship courses to students of science, engineering and technology as education leaders recognise the benefits that increased levels of innovative entrepreneurship can bring to our economy.

The way in which entrepreneurship is presented to students in today’s environment is very different to some years ago — no longer is it focused on business plans and the provision of content that gets examined at the end of the course.

The philosophy of most courses is now on engendering entrepreneurial behaviour (which can be used in many different contexts, including for social benefit) and asking students to undertake projects that demonstrate different entrepreneurial skill-sets.

For example, my students in DIT have no exams but instead have to organise charity events, a challenge which gets them to test their entrepreneurial skill-sets outside of the classroom, plus they have raised over €400,000 for various charities.

Colleagues in other institutions ask students to run market stalls, to buy and sell on eBay, and use many other innovative methods to get their students to enhance their ability to behave entrepreneurially.

In the article, the argument that academics cannot teach entrepreneurship because they have not started and run a successful company is once again trotted out.

People may be surprised to learn that many entrepreneurship educators have in fact been successful entrepreneurs and are now engaged in a second career, many others regularly work with businesses in a variety of capacities, while most courses are now designed and delivered with the input of an entrepreneur.

Indeed a Cork software firm called FaB-Education has recently developed an online programme in conjunction with a third-level institution that enables students of entrepreneurship to easily understand how finance relates to the development of their business model. Academia and industry are no longer worlds apart.

I would agree that we need to encourage a culture of risk-taking and the spread of entrepreneurship education into the primary, secondary and third-level education systems is certainly aiding this process.

The actions being taken by educators across all levels are helping to build a new generation of young people that view entrepreneurship as being open to everyone and even if they never start a business, they understand that they can use the same skill-sets and entrepreneurial behaviour for the benefit of their local communities.

The myths surrounding entrepreneurship are being debunked for the younger generations, but unfortunately it is taking longer to convince the older generations.

* Thomas Cooney is professor of entrepreneurship in Dublin Institute of Technology, and is president of the International Council for Small Business

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