Our education system is responsible for preparing young people to build successful lives. They should be ready for the wide range of possibilities ahead of them, including working for others, starting their own ventures, and contributing to their communities. All of these options require a depth of knowledge in their chosen discipline, as well as creative problem solving skills, leadership abilities, experience working on effective teams, and adaptability in an ever-changing environment. It’s no coincidence that these are the same capabilities that employers say they want in college graduates. According to research conducted by National Association of Colleges and Employers, they are also the deciding factors when employers compare candidates with equivalent backgrounds.
These skills are the cornerstones of entrepreneurship education, which explicitly prepares students to identify and address challenges and opportunities. Therefore, along with teaching traditional subjects, such as science, grammar, and history, that provide foundational knowledge, it’s imperative that we teach students to be entrepreneurial.
There are many who believe that entrepreneurship is an inborn trait that can’t be taught. This is simply not true. As with all skills, from math to music, learning to be entrepreneurial builds upon inborn traits. For example, learning to read and write taps in a baby’s natural ability to babble. Each baby learns to harness those noises to form words, connect words to compose sentences, and combine sentences to craft stories.
Entrepreneurship can be taught using a similar scaffolding of skills, building upon our natural ability to imagine:
- Imagination is envisioning things that don’t exist.
- Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge.
- Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions.
- Entrepreneurship is applying innovations, scaling the ideas by inspiring others’ imagination.
Using this framework, educators at all levels can help young people engage with the world around them and envision what might be different; experiment with creative solutions to the problems they encounter; hone their ability to reframe problems in order to come up with unique ideas; and then work persistently to scale their ideas by inspiring others to support their effort.
After years teaching innovation and entrepreneurship at Stanford University School of Engineering, I can confidently assert that these skills can be learned and mastered. I’ve seen thousands of students at Stanford, and at schools around the world, transformed by courses and extracurricular programs. These include classes on creative problem solving and entrepreneurial leadership, as well as cross-campus innovation tournaments and new-venture competitions.
We can all agree that these skills are much more difficult to measure than determining if a student knows all the state capitals or how to diagram a sentence. However, the fact that they are hard to measure doesn’t mean they aren’t equally important to teach. We shouldn’t shape the curriculum solely around subjects that can be easily evaluated on a standardized exam. As a quote attributed to William Bruce Cameron elegantly states, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” We shouldn’t be dissuaded from teaching entrepreneurship just because it is difficult to measure the impact in the short term.
From my experience, it often takes years before the seeds of entrepreneurship education grow into projects or programs that are manifest in the world. In fact, most of the successful ventures started by our graduates are launched years after they complete their formal schooling. Yet, they credit their entrepreneurship education for preparing them to launch and lead those endeavors.
There are compelling examples of educators who are successfully incorporating entrepreneurship education into traditional learning environments. Consider Don Wettrick, who teaches high school in Indiana. He gives his students a full class period each day to work on a project of their own choice, allowing them to master all the above skills. Students submit a proposal for their project, collaborate with outside experts to get input and feedback, keep a blog to document their progress, and present their project at the end of the course. Projects have included helping special needs students launch a coffee shop at the school, crafting an environmentally friendly plan for maintaining the school grounds, and building a transparent solar cell. No matter what project they choose, the students develop a valuable set of skills, which they’re able to apply to all aspects of their lives.
Another example comes from our classroom at Stanford this past quarter where we challenged our students to redesign the experience of going from prison to freedom. Working with The Last Mile, an organization that teaches entrepreneurship at San Quentin State Prison, the students learned about the problems that former inmates face when they’re released. As part of the project, the students taught a class at the prison, interviewed dozens of people in the criminal justice system to understand their points of view, brainstormed to generate hundreds of ideas, and presented the most compelling solutions to a room full of stakeholders. This experience provided meaningful insights. For example, several teams realized that for many of the men, this was not a reentry process at all, but an entry process — they were much more like immigrants, entering a new world rather than returning to a world they once knew. This led to a variety of innovative and actionable solutions, several of which have already been implemented.
These examples demonstrate that we can indeed teach entrepreneurship, preparing young people to see and seize opportunities around them. The skills they gain are critical for the organizations they will join in the future and for society at large. Most important, entrepreneurship education empowers young people to see the world as opportunity rich, and to craft the lives they dream to live.
Tina Seelig is Professor of the Practice, Department of Management Science and Engineering, Stanford School of Engineering, and director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Her books include: Insight Out: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World, inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, and What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20.