Can entrepreneurialism be taught?

It’s an age-old question with new-found relevance in a COVID world: can entrepreneurialism be taught?

I would suggest that yes, entrepreneurialism can be taught in one way or another. However, the real question is: who is the teacher?

Building enough knowledge to operate as an entrepreneur is essentially the threshold to really be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is, at its heart, acceptance of the famed quote attributed to Sir Frances Beacon back in 1597, “knowledge is power”.

Who is the teacher?

The “teacher” of empowering entrepreneurial knowledge may be a person or group of people or even an experience. That is because the most common trait of successful entrepreneurs is a curious mind. They actively seek to learn as much as possible about business, about their customers, about their industry, about the value of their product or service. And, generally speaking, the more “teachers” they learn from, the broader their knowledge base. Skills and knowledge may be acquired by way of:

  • a formal education
  • informal on-the-job learning
  • a practical attempt that results in a form of failure (few entrepreneurs ever succeed on their first attempt!)
  • or any combination of the three.

Why does education matter?

While success in business often has an element of luck, it fundamentally relies on good decisions. Good decisions are made based on weighing up the risks and opportunities. Which all amount to knowledge.

In practice, it means that most entrepreneurs don’t fall into the stereotypical school-leaver or college drop-out who accidentally stumbles across a billion-dollar idea.

In the US, tertiary education ranks even higher among entrepreneurs. A 2009 Kauffman Foundation survey of 549 American company founders determined that a staggering 95.1 per cent had a bachelor’s degree and 47 per cent had more advanced degrees.

Meanwhile in Australia, 67.7 per cent of local entrepreneurs have some form of tertiary qualification, according to QUT’s 2019/20 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. Of these, 26.4 per cent have undergraduate degrees and 15.2 per cent have postgraduate qualifications, while the remainder have VET accreditations.

Interestingly, the same study ranks Australia first out of 50 global economies for intrapreneurship – meaning we have a high rate of working adults engaging in entrepreneurial activities for their employer.

And with the dramatic spike in unemployment and underemployment caused by COVID, it stands to reason that many of these intrapreneurs will turn their skills and ideas towards entrepreneurship.

Be the eternal student

Ultimately, there is no one set of skills required for being an entrepreneur. Nor is there one prescribed means of garnering those skills. Entrepreneurship tends to be based on a range of factors and life experiences.

Looking back at our four “teachers”, it’s clear that the lessons learned will vary from person-to-person. After all, a job is what you make of it; a practical attempt will involve different factors and generate different results. None of us has the same lived experience.

So too with formal education. Business studies are a natural hothouse for would-be entrepreneurs (19 per cent of bachelor degrees issued in the US in 2017-18 were in business, more than any other degree type). But other entrepreneurs seek to specialise in a technical field, such as engineering or biomedical sciences.

Many successful entrepreneurs strongly adhere to the advice of Warren Buffet, who is quoted as saying, “One of the best things you can do in life is to surround yourself with people who are better than you are”.

Hence to learn entrepreneurship means to be the eternal student and continually learn as much as you can – from as many sources as possible. So read, research, listen, watch, meet, discuss, do…because an entrepreneur is nothing without knowledge!

Alan Manly, Founder, Group Colleges Australia and author of “The Unlikely Entrepreneur” 

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