The Problem With Our Entrepreneurship Obsession

There is a rising tide of youth-focused entrepreneurship education, but a school with over a decade of experience in training rising entrepreneurs is asking, “Aren’t we missing something?”

Today, President Obama will address the 7th annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) at Stanford University, the umbrella under which the US State Department has assembled the top global entrepreneurs, investors, and thought leaders in entrepreneurship. In announcing this year’s summit via YouTube, President Obama said:

“(Entrepreneurship is)…that spark of prosperity that creates new jobs and new businesses, new ways to deliver basic services and new ways to see the world.” -President Obama

President Obama listens to youth entrepreneurs at Demo Day 2015 (

GES represents just one component of the US Government’s push for entrepreneurship; spearheaded by the President, the White House has created Start-up America, The Presidential Innovation Fellows, and the first-ever, youth-focused “Demo Day” at 1600 Pennsylvania; last year, Vice President Biden added to the entrepreneurial furor by announcing that the US government would pledge $1 billion towards global ventures “to advance entrepreneurship around the world.” (, 2015)

Of course, the US Government has not been alone in pressing towards a more entrepreneurial world. Higher education institutions, too, have delved headlong into the world of entrepreneurship. According to the Kaufman Foundation, one of the leading researchers and funders of entrepreneurial programs, entrepreneurship education at the university level has boomed in the past 40 years. “In 1975, colleges and universities offered around 100 formal majors, minors, and certificates in entrepreneurship. By 2006, that they offered 500 of those programs…In 1985, there were about 250 courses offered in entrepreneurship at college campuses across the nation. In 2008, that number was 5,000.” (Kaufman Foundation, Oct 2015) Colleges now jockey for distinctions like, “Most Innovative Space”; even top colleges and universities like Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton scramble to stay head. Gordon Jones, formerly of the Harvard Innovation Lab, mused to the NY Times, “A lot of these universities want to get in the game and serve this up because it’s hot…”

Princeton’s Keller Center runs the schools Entrepreneurial Hub and promotes “entrepreneurship, the Princeton way” (

Naturally, the passion for entrepreneurship has trickled down the food chain, especially within secondary education. For years, summer camps like those at Babson College, extracurricular programs like Junior Achievement, and youth focused incubators like Catapult sated high school students; increasingly, though, innovative high school teachers and principals have woven entrepreneurship elements into classrooms where students easily disregard textbooks and staid theory for popular field tools and methods (e.g. Business Model Canvas and Lean Start-up). Some push the envelope further, having students work with potential clients and even venture capitalists in hopes of launching budding innovators and job creators into the real world. Spend a few minutes in these dynamic entrepreneurship classrooms and you will see that their aim is to shape young people who grasp value creation, value proposition, and valuation.

There is a risk, however, with this entrepreneurship obsession. When we talk about, teach, and fund youth entrepreneurship, we often do so with an intense focus on value, without a grounding in what we might call ‘virtue.

Value, without virtue.

If fixated on value extraction and profit maximization, entrepreneurship education devoid of virtue — that is, moral grounding and societal regard — poses great risk. History — and indeed the everyday news — evidences that an outsize focus on value creation spawns usurious behavior. One needs to look no further than the recent example of Martin Shkreli, a young investment banker who bought the drug Diaprim, solely to jack up the price 50-fold, bilking elderly users of the drug normally accustomed to paying $13/month. If young Millennials — whom many consider already notoriously narcissistic and extreme — are drilled to become entrepreneurs without accompanying grounding in virtue, we could easily usher in a generation of rainmakers with little regard for the people, environment, or societies that make it rain for them. Some critics point to Uber, which just settled with drivers for $100 million because of lawsuit asserting that the $68 billion behemoth maximizes company value while shirking the virtues of driver benefits.

Virtue is not as simple or tidy as “be nice” or “pursue social entrepreneurship”, however. At the Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership at African Leadership Academy, we believe virtue represents an amalgamation of character, ethics, and the “true north” bearing that helps entrepreneurs make win-win decisions in life’s many grey areas. Virtuous actors embody the rugged grit, drive and passion for which entrepreneurs are often known; yet these traits are balanced by a deeply rooted regard for others — an empathy for customers, users, employees, and even systems in which the entrepreneur operates. It is virtue that sets apart the opportunity-seeking serial entrepreneur from the opportunistic shark. In a word, virtue is leadership.

Virtue, without value

This is not a call to reject the value-orientation of entrepreneurship education. Virtue alone risks allowing our youth to live in the realm of nice ideas, cute platitudes, aspirational futures, and ‘feel good’ moments that move the needle very little in pragmatic terms. Across the world, populations appear to be tiring of lofty rhetoric that mean little for their daily wellbeing. As evidence, look no further than anti-establishment trends in the US primary elections, or similar movements in France, Great Britain, Nigeria and South Africa — all of which feed off public frustration with the status quo, which has promised many things but delivered underwhelmingly. In the US, one can observe open mockery of the virtuous themes that brought Barack Obama into office eight years ago, as many on both sides of the aisle feel that the true promises of hope, change, and solidarity — fine virtues for a democracy — have been largely unrealized, or, at most, lacking in substantive value.

The power and potential behind either value or virtue — entrepreneurship or leadership — an Uber and an Obama campaign— is immense, but if we fail to successfully bridge the crevasse between them, we will forever be left wanting.

Value & Virtue

This is the problem we saw at African Leadership Academy in 2009. Even though students attended Entrepreneurship and Leadership classes separately every day, they rarely made the connection between the two. For us, this problem proved tantamount to tackling Chemistry without Math, or Composition without English basics. Thanks to a MasterCard Foundation grant, ALA created the Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) and with it, a relatively uncharted space to explore the intersection of virtue and value in training changemakers for the 21st Century.

An ALA student pitches a human-centered start-up to address poverty in her community

Educating our students at the intersection of virtue and value, we equip them with the power to be ethical and effective actors in the world. In Africa — and, we believe, in all the world — up-and-coming changemakers must be Entrepreneurial Leaders capable of leading societies in positive directions while creating opportunities for every person therein. Entrepreneurial Leaders need not be business people, but they must bring together the skill sets of leaders and entrepreneurs to be effective. They need to inspire with great ideas, to build teams & organize efforts, and support followers along the way; they also need to see problems as opportunities, take leveraged risks, and be capable of creating ‘something from nothing.’ Such are the Entrepreneurial Leadership skills we equip young people with at African Leadership Academy.

By creating (1) practice-based opportunities to support our students’ growth as entrepreneurs and leaders, providing (2) rich feedback and (3) growth opportunities throughout, ALA shapes students’ EL experience to hone their embodiment of virtue and value in the world. According to Priscilla Semphere, a graduate of ALA who incubated a company on campus and launched upon graduation. “The EL experience provided a fail-safe environment: a space where we could try out our idea while experiencing, learning from, and improving upon our shortcomings.”

The Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

“Entrepreneurship is key to growth” — Founding belief, African Leadership Academy

African Leadership Academy believes firmly that entrepreneurship will fuel Africa’s economic engine well into the future and the school has a history of finding and supporting some of Africa’s most talented rising entrepreneurs, like William Kamkwamba, Laetitia Mukungu, and over 50 Anzisha Prize Fellows over the last five years.

ALA also believes that young people must be prepared for the perils of value-at-all-costs thinking that pervades Africa and the world. Scandals in Brazil, Iceland, Japan and America indicate that Africa is not alone in the need to buffet Gordon Gekko-esque profit orientation devoid of the common decency upon which modern societies have been built.

For ALA, this moment is a critical one to develop the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders. Africa — and the globe — desperately needs doers and makers who are supremely effective and deeply ethical, and the Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership stands as a convener of those who similarly wish to achieve this by marrying value and virtue hereto forth.

Ryan Findley is a Partner with Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership at African Leadership Academy. LinkedIn | Twitter