This year, Barbie’s Career of the Year is “entrepreneur.” The iconic doll for 2014 is smartly dressed in a pink sheath with black stilettoes and matching bag. And Mattel makes sure to characterize “entrepreneur” as a career. A career is a calling. The message to little girls is that you can be an entrepreneur – in all that you do. You can dream, you can learn to be resilient, you can execute, you can be innovative in your life and career. It doesn’t mean that if you don’t start a company, you are not an entrepreneur.
Mattel got it right.
I am frequently asked, particularly since I became the dean of Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship, if it is really possible to teach someone to be an entrepreneur. Most of those inquisitive individuals already have the answer in their heads: “Of course not. You can’t teach someone to be an entrepreneur.”
This perception is most likely based on several assumptions. I know them by heart now:
- Being an entrepreneur is genetic
- Starting a new company is hard
- Not everyone wants to start a company
- Everybody can’t be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc …
- Entrepreneurs are “one of a kind” individuals
I don’t totally disagree with these statements. There is some truth to some of them. However, there are two related assumptions underlying these perceptions that do not necessarily hold up.
The first assumption lies in definition of the word “entrepreneur.” Nine times out of 10, everyone thinks that to be an “entrepreneur” one has to start a company.
In my view, this is incorrect. The origin of the word “entrepreneur” can be traced back to a French derivation, which means to “undertake” or “undertaker.” Being an entrepreneur is about taking initiative, being flexible, taking calculated risks, knowing how to dream AND do. Being an entrepreneur is a habit of mind; an innovative approach to life, career and profession. The entrepreneur is the person who is resilient, incorporates innovative thinking in all they do, takes initiative, executes. These are attributes that are critical to working in a company, to starting a company, to managing a career. Entrepreneurs learn from failure and pivot (in the latest lean-start up terminology).
The second assumption is equating the terms “entrepreneur” and “entrepreneurship.” The former is a person; the second is a process. And here is where most colleges and universities get it wrong with entrepreneurial education. Most entrepreneurship programs are typically housed in the business school or department, focus on teaching the process of entrepreneurship: writing a business plan, estimating future revenues and expenses, evaluating opportunities, understanding venture capital funding, learning about incorporation.
These are valuable topics. Valuable, but lacking, because they are devoid of the person.
Higher education needs to take a cue from Barbie. We should be graduating students into the 21st century workplace who now, more than ever, need to be entrepreneurs. They will not have the same job or employer for even 10 years. They will need to learn how to pivot, how to continually reinvent themselves, how to — dare I say it — work for themselves.
Higher education must teach students how to be the entrepreneur together with the process of entrepreneurship. It is a whole new approach and one that some universities are beginning to, well, “undertake.” It means that as educators we have to reimagine our entrepreneurship programs — to incorporate lots of experiential learning so students can fail and recover; to incorporate multiple courses in communication skills, negotiations, team building and leading. And to make students demonstrate these skills. This is a different and complementary approach to teaching the process of entrepreneurship. And it takes an entrepreneurial approach on the part of our universities.
I am a firm believer that we can teach someone to be an “entrepreneur.” In fact, I’m hoping that next year Mattel will make “Entrepreneur” the career of the year for Ken, too.