Revamping the Entrepreneurship Curriculum

Shannon Beeman
April 9, 2012

This is the reign of entrepreneurship. Even staid universities are being transformed. A recent Kauffman Foundation study revealed that today, over 1,500 U.S. colleges and universities offer some form of entrepreneurship training, whereas only a handful did just 15 years ago. However, as quickly as university entrepreneurial programs proliferate, students’ expectations from them are also morphing.

Historically, university entrepreneurial programs have generally started in business schools and met the needs of those students wanting to launch a business, rather than join an existing one. These programs quickly expanded to include engineers and scientists who wanted to commercialize their high-tech gizmos. The entrepreneurial programs delivered on the students’ desires by teaching how to start and build a business. But something is changing on university campuses. There’s a new generation of students with very different views of their futures. They want careers with meaning and they want to study what they are passionate about. They want to learn how to earn a living from those passions.

Unlike the previous generation of students, this generation is not coming to entrepreneurship programs with solid business ideas; these students are coming with only newfound knowledge and interests. This greatly shifts their expectations and needs. While commencing an entrepreneurial-education program with a business-plan course made perfect sense to students coming in with solid business ideas, it makes no sense for this new generation of students with few businesses to launch. These students need to learn the complete entrepreneurial arch that spans from capabilities on one shore to an ongoing business on the other side.

Building from the capability footing of the arch requires first identifying an opportunity that’s actually feasible, given one’s resources and abilities. The next block in the arch is designing a business that exploits that opportunity. A feasibility study then needs to be done to see if this business meets the aspirations of the founders and any investors that may be required. Once a new venture is deemed feasible (or the conditions of that feasibility determined), one then traverses to the right side of the entrepreneurial arch, to the familiar elements more typical in classic entrepreneurial education: creating a business model and business plan, finding the human resources and financial capital needed to start the business, and managing the growth of the new venture.

Creating courses and entrepreneurial skill-building programs on the left-hand side of the entrepreneurial arch was not necessary for the previous generation of students who came to entrepreneurial programs with exciting new business ideas, but is essential for the current generation.  As a result, these pre-business planning entrepreneurial skills—opportunity identification, business design, and business assessment—are largely missing from most entrepreneurship curriculums.

We need to teach students how to create differentiated businesses from their differentiated capabilities, building upon their own unique knowledge bases and what they came to the university to study.  Business is the vehicle for creating and capturing value from your capabilities.  The discussion about how to leverage your capabilities to create value for the world should not start with the vehicle, but with your capabilities.  That is what students are passionate about, and that’s what they came to the institutions of higher learning to deepen their knowledge about.

Business schools like the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, with the help of successful serial entrepreneurs and alumni, are demonstrating how this can be done across a dynamic university.  While expanding entrepreneurial curriculum satisfies the needs of this generation of students, it also moves entrepreneurial programs significantly beyond “extracurricular” student activities and a few elective courses.  Staid institutions of higher learning must manage to sustain these transformations for the good of their graduates and the global economy.

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