Should Basic Entrepreneurship Education Be Compulsory?

World of Work June 15, 2016

In a time when the value of higher education is being questioned due to a general increment in tuition costs, the infamous skills-gap, the flood of articles about successful college dropouts and the recent craze for startups, entrepreneurship is, without question, a hot topic.

Why go to a four-year college when you can start your own business? But despite startup-minded entrepreneurs themselves are behind the mishap of higher education, this is the best time to think seriously about entrepreneurship education.

Entrepreneurship education is not new for colleges and universities but its popularity is increasing. In 1985, the number of entrepreneurship courses at U.S. colleges was 250. In 2013, more than 40,000 students were taking entrepreneurship courses and today, the number it’s increasing rapidly. In our case, the vision of Eugenio Garza Sada, founder of Tecnológico de Monterrey, and an entrepreneur himself, inspired our University to create its first entrepreneur program in 1978 with the support of a small group of academics and local businessmen.

There is no doubt that the race to educate the next Mark Zuckerberg is fiercer than ever. But the drawback is that many colleges and universities are confusing what entrepreneurship is.

It is not only about creating tech startups or the next Facebook. It is also about the intrapreneurs: those workers who have mastered entrepreneurial principles in their day to day activities within an organization. These are very common mistakes, and the main reasons why a growing number of academics are skeptical about the rigorousness of this type of courses, because they delimit the discipline to a few trendy fields. Entrepreneurship should be an ethos, a mindset grounded on a diverse set of skills and competencies that prepare students for life, not a specific occupation.

Moreover, the common belief that innovators are young and rebel college dropouts is wrong. A recent study showed that a more accurate portrait of an entrepreneur is an older, well-educated immigrant. In the United States, more than one-third of the innovators, the scientists and engineers behind the advances in technology, were born outside the country. This revolutionizes the “iconic mythology” behind entrepreneurs. But the key finding of the study is that two-thirds of the immigrant innovators hold a Ph.D. in science or technology. Thomas Friedman, journalist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, advises young entrepreneurs to imagine themselves as immigrants, because “new immigrants are paranoid optimists (…) they are risk-takers and they are persistent — both vital traits for entrepreneurs.” Even one of the most successful and famous college-dropouts, Bill Gates, encourages young people to pursue a higher education. For Gates, “The problem is that not enough people are finishing college,” and that is one of the reasons why he and his wife started the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to support initiatives in education around the world.

This tells us a lot about why and how entrepreneurship should be taught in schools. Entrepreneurship is and should be a lifelong learning process, starting as early as elementary school and progressing through all levels of education, including adult education.

It’s important to start at early age because kids nowadays need to develop a whole set of social and emotional skills to be ready for life. This skills are not only helpful to launch startups, it’s about learning how to be creative, optimist and to develop inventiveness and resilience that allow them to think and perform bold, creative and brave ideas that have a real social and economical impact in our society.

With this in mind, at Tecnológico de Monterrey we have founded the Eugenio Garza Lagüera Entrepreneurship Institute, the largest entrepreneurship ecosystem in Latin America, where we enhance our students’ entrepreneurial spirit so that they can experience the passion of proposing and implementing solutions for social, economic and environmental development. Today, thanks to this initiative, 20.9% of our alumni are business partners or are incubating companies just after 3 months of graduation and 40% of them are company owners 10 years after their graduation.

In my opinion, there is no doubt of the value of proper, rigorous entrepreneurship education. Rigorous in the sense of building a pillar that supports it with effective teaching and research, avoiding the fads and instead focusing in the development of an innovative and disruptive perspective of entrepreneurship. Nor there is doubt of the value of the competencies and skills entrepreneurs usually share: they are hard workers, they have initiative, are not afraid of failure or taking risks, they have ambition and they are not easily discouraged. These competencies, when applied in broader fields, are true key drivers of our economy.

I truly believe this can be the key to break higher education’s bad run in recent years. We must be brave and try to surf the current entrepreneurial wave by adopting ourselves the entrepreneurial mindset. From faculty to administration, a new ethos should be adopted. That is by encouraging and developing inventiveness, resilience, grit and other skills such as problem solving in every corner of our institutions.