Can entrepreneurship be taught?
Every few years someone throws out this question and then answers it – often without doing much research on what we know about teaching entrepreneurship. And while I’m all for opinions, I also really like science – the kind based on empirical methods. Researchers have been asking this question since the late 1980’s. Instead of holding you in suspense, the answer to Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught is “Yes. We think so. But outcomes vary with inputs”. Researchers still cannot predict who will be successful and under which conditions. And given the high rate of failure all new companies face, peering into the dark depths of what works in entrepreneurship education merits persistence.
There are more reasons to pull on this thread. Take for example the data that show startup formation in the US has been on a downslope for over two decades. While entrepreneurship education has exploded, actual entrepreneurial activity has not. Considering The Kauffman Foundation’s research showing job creation in the US is directly tied to startup rates, this is cause for concern. And that those of us who teach entrepreneurship wonder if what we are doing works. So, answers to this question are important. And, as with any question, it is wise to understand the context in which this research is being conducted.
So let’s consider the field of entrepreneurship. To do that we will define entrepreneurship as “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently under control.” You don’t have to agree with this definition but you should know that it is the most commonly used definition applied by entrepreneurship scholars. I like the definition because it casts a wide net and includes anyone doing something new, without easy access to resources but grounded in a big vision. It includes startups in any sector – medical, education, arts, energy, retail, food, for-profit, not-for-profit…Benefit (B) Corps, etc. Note, however, that much of the actual research on startups has been conducted on “tech” startups in Silicon Valley. Thus, the field of entrepreneurship is both relatively new and limited in scope. (By comparison, consider the field of psychology which was formalized in the 1830’s and has studied humans from every corner of the globe.) So, the academic – and practical - context in which we are asking the question, “Does teaching entrepreneurship work?” is both new and relatively little understood.
Despite this, there has been a proliferation of entrepreneurship online classes, in person seminars, workshops, accelerators, weekend events, and yes, higher education courses. In rural Africa and New York high rises entrepreneurship is being taught to hopeful entrepreneurs. Which is a good thing. Unless the people teaching entrepreneurship don’t know what they are doing. (Imagine seeing a psychiatrist who was only sort of educated or skilled in the field. Bad idea, right?) So, the context of entrepreneurship education is as follows: A new and little understood field in which the quality, style, practice, and skills of teachers vary as much as the students and social conditions.
Given the diversity of contexts and conditions in which entrepreneurship is taught, perhaps the most appropriate way to gauge effectiveness is on a program-by program basis. Entrepreneurship educators are encouraged to set goals for their students that reflect the context and social conditions they operate within. We received a grant from the Kauffman Foundation to do just that: we are simultaneously reflecting on the needs of the creative startups we serve and tackling the question of how to best support these new companies.
For us, at Creative Startups, we aim to attract more “creatives” to get in the game as it were. We want more designers, musicians, filmmakers, and tech-oriented artists to launch companies. We believe we are on the cusp of a creative revolution and we want to equip creatives with the skills, knowledge, and self-confidence to start new companies. We believe in their ability to build vibrant and inclusive communities and we want their creative values to be at the core of the creative economy.
So, how do we know if our entrepreneurship education programs are working?
This is the question we ask of ourselves at Creative Startups in regards to our startup accelerator as well as workshops we teach. We measure program effectiveness in four core areas: (1) knowledge and skills gained, (2) self efficacy gained, (3) network expansion, and (4) business success (profit + jobs). In general, I can argue with data on my side that what we are doing at Creative Startups works. Read more about our Creative Startups Accelerator Impact here.
What Are We Measuring?
We measure for overall capacity to succeed as an entrepreneur. So, we measure knowledge gained: How does cash flow impact a startup? Which are the most effective social media platforms for your business? We measure skills gained: Create a cash flow spreadsheet for the next 18 months. Assess your Google Analytics and shift your strategy to reflect what you learned. We measure self-efficacy: How confident are you in handling/leading these areas of your business? We measure network expansion of our startups because data show that successful entrepreneurs have diverse and robust social networks. And we measure the final “bottom lines” of profit and jobs created.
We do not measure (although we track) Investment Raised because a true measure of business success is not how much money a startup has raised but, how much and how sustainable a business’s profits are. And how much the business contributes to the well being of a community through job creation, community vibrancy, and the well-being of its customers, employees, and stakeholders.
Why Are We Measuring It?
We measure these four areas because we are more concerned about growing entrepreneurial capacity in teams/individuals in the creative industries than growing high profile startups that return lots of money to investors but fail to contribute to community well-being and the creative discourse.
How Are We Measuring It?
We use pre and post online questionnaires, interviews, observations, and qualitative analysis that help us extract themes. We currently do not have enough startups to do reliable/valid quantitative data analysis but we will soon.
How Do We Know These Are the Variables to Measure?
We don’t. And, given the newness and current lack of depth in the field of entrepreneurship study, there’s a good chance we won’t know for several years if our studies are accurately portraying program effectiveness. The field is developing, evolving, and shifting. But we do know that analyzing our program with the help of an external evaluator has uncovered areas of excellence and failure – and has given us the perspective we need to understand how we can do a better job at teaching entrepreneurship.