Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

This article was originally featured in Forbes.

 

In many ways, I consider myself an accidental entrepreneur: I studied literature in college and dreamed as a kid of becoming a writer, not a founder. But my own trajectory, coupled with the students I counsel in their college admissions processes, has given me a unique perspective into what cultivates entrepreneurs.

The real question is: Can you teach entrepreneurship? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. But the answer, I think, may come down to your approach.

Sure, accounting and marketing matter, but what about the intangible qualities that make an entrepreneur tick? What, educationally speaking, distinguishes an effective businessperson from a founder? While some might say that these traits are inborn, I believe they can also be taught to a certain extent -- it’s just a question of how.

They may not appear in most course catalogs, but these are the classes I wish every aspiring entrepreneur could take, in school or afterward:

 

Time Management And Prioritization

That gratification that comes from taking a final exam and putting away your books for summer vacation -- it’s one of the things I miss most about college. In fact, a common complaint I hear among recent graduates starting at our company is that they “can’t make it to the bottom of the pile.” While this is a reality of professional life, it’s not one that many colleges or business programs address. Despite this, it’s essential for recent graduates to understand that this feeling is normal, and it’s not necessarily a reflection of their productivity either.

Encourage new hires to communicate when they don’t have time to finish something. I’ve found that rather than speaking up or asking for support, a lot of recent grads will avoid the conversation, struggling in silence or failing to get the work done. Furthermore, it’s not enough to just set a new employee up with an email and calendar; recent grads should be taught how to manage their schedules. For example, this may mean discussing how to delineate between daily, weekly, and longer-term goals. Whatever the approach, as an employer, it’s part of your job to help each team member develop a system that works for them.

 

Work-Life Balance

As I was complaining about the elusiveness of “work-life balance,” an advisor recently reminded me that the whole concept was conceived to get people to work more, not less. It made me wonder: What happens when your work is your life, as many entrepreneurs feel (and with good reason)? How do you manage this? How do you cultivate the balance in others?

In between finance and accounting classes, no one discusses the very real possibility of burnout or introduces students to the pace of startup life. For many recent grads, entering an entrepreneurial environment can feel like a shock to the system. With this in mind, my co-founder and I begin by introducing recent grads to tools like Boomerang that help us (and other team members) manage their email flow. It’s not enough to just offer a gym membership, either: Wellness has to be an explicit part of the company dialogue and practice. For this reason, we take team walks to brainstorm together, or block out group workouts on the calendar.

 

Modern Etiquette

In the 21st century, communication is constant, which creates a greater window for misunderstanding and a new definition of etiquette. There are certain things they’ll never teach you in school, like how to write a thank-you note, ask for a reference letter, or leave a company on good terms. Of course, many of these skills are learned on the job -- and as much as we want our employees to exhibit grace in these areas, it wouldn’t exactly be good etiquette on our end to shove a manners book into their hands.

Instead, we’ve found that the best way to teach manners is to model them. Since ours is a service business, we do this in our interactions with our clients. Treating customers well isn’t just about doing what’s good for business; it’s part of our brand identity. We’ve found that viewing it that way, and discussing this explicitly during employee training, helps set the right tone in our office.

While the verdict’s out on whether a traditional business education (or any education, really) can foster true entrepreneurs, it’s important to frame the workplace as a continuation of the classroom in order to encourage innovation. Learning happens in many forms -- through textbooks and experience -- and while a formal education can help, as employers and employees, we are all teachers and students.

 

-Lindsay T.