As the world increasingly looks for a workforce built on creativity, innovation and ultimately intellectual property, it’s important to consider the merits of our educational system. With growing evidence that entrepreneurship and small-business ownership characterize the way to economic prosperity, this begs the question: Can entrepreneurship be taught?
Many believe entrepreneurs are born, not made. Studies show young entrepreneurs are typically more creative, self-confident and determined to achieve personal success than their peers.
While it’s important to realize the potential of fostering entrepreneurial spirit at an early age, it often comes as natural to children as learning to tie their shoes or ride a bike. Lemonade stands are often a child’s first enterprise—that rewarding experience of leading and managing a profitable business.
Although we often hear about Facebook Inc.’s Mark Zuckerberg (who dropped out of Harvard) as the paragon of billionaire success, the entrepreneurial wunderkinds who achieve this status without higher education are exceptions to the rule. In fact, there is a growing movement across the U.S. to teach young adults how to become entrepreneurs, or at least think like entrepreneurs.
Universities are playing a role in supporting young people with an entrepreneurial skill set—offering more classes, extracurricular programming and campuswide events to support their efforts. Many college/universities now have entrepreneurship centers that allow students to work on and accelerate their ideas.
Students can take a class on how to think creatively, write a business plan and fund their venture. There’s a whole ecosystem related to startups on campuses these days, from pitch competitions and incubator programs, to campus talks about startups and seed funding opportunities.
Rochester has a number of university incubators that sponsor business competitions for young entrepreneurs—such as Venture Creations at RIT and High Tech Rochester Inc., an affiliate of the University of Rochester.
Entrepreneurship is all about having faith in one’s ideas—and those ideas often come from having multiple real-life experiences. We are starting to see a trend where entrepreneurial opportunities are even being introduced at pre-college levels. Organizations like DECA are providing high school students with the opportunity to pitch their business ideas at local, regional and national levels.
Similarly, there is the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) Saunders College Competition for entrepreneurial-engaged high school students between the ages of 11 to 18, which is now in its ninth year. The first-place winner receives a $30,000 scholarship and an extra bonus—mentorship from Dansville, Livingston County, native Philip Saunders, a well-known serial entrepreneur, philanthropist and namesake of the national competition.
There also has been a rise in leadership and entrepreneurship programs at the high school level to engage more young women in business. Programs such as Cornell’s High School Women’s Summer Entrepreneurship camp and RIT’s Women Leading Business event focus on leadership development and careers in business.
It’s important to note that there are key business skills that must be applied to increase the probability of a successful venture with a sound business strategy and plan. Business can be thought of as a central function to any startup, even though the business idea may be rooted in any discipline.
I think we have all come to realize that entrepreneurs have helped to drive the economy in the Rochester community and beyond—George Eastman, Phil Saunders, Tom Golisano and Austin McChord, to name a few. Many young people see unrealized opportunity wherever they go—and entrepreneurial-based education combined with experiential opportunities can help to polish that spirit and mindset. Supporting aspiring entrepreneurs from a young age through adulthood is a good investment—and the payoff can be big.
Jacqueline Mozrall is dean of Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology.
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