From Accidental Discovery to Academic Study

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, shall we? So many naysayers out there question the role of higher education in helping to produce the successful entrepreneurial ventures of tomorrow.

Can Higher Ed teach Tomorrow’s Entrepreneurs?

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, shall we? So many naysayers out there question the role of higher education in helping to produce the successful entrepreneurial ventures of tomorrow. All we hear about are the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of business school to create Apple, Microsoft and Facebook respectively.  We are romanticized by the idea of doing the same and becoming the next “it” guy or gal.

The Millennials, who predominantly walk college campuses today, are especially enamored with this. Demand is at an all time high for the next generation of entrepreneurs, which is reflected in the incredible rise in entrepreneurial education.

In 1985, a decade after Jobs and Gates formed Apple and Microsoft and the year after Edward and Karen welcomed baby Zuckerberg into the world, there were about 250 college courses focused on entrepreneurship according to a recent report from the Kauffman Foundation. By 2008, the number of entrepreneurship courses on U.S. campuses alone exceeded 5,000. Today, more than 400,000 students are enrolled in entrepreneurship courses.

So, hear me loud and clear: entrepreneurship is no longer an accidental discovery, but an intentional career track that requires thought leadership, discipline, process, and a business model and mindset to complement that great idea.

The “Innovation Equation”
There’s a big difference between an idea and an opportunity. The latter is something that has a commercial market and customers and can ultimately be monetized. That is entrepreneurship at its core and how jobs are created. So often, I will have students in my classroom who think successful entrepreneurship is only about having that next big idea.  Or, I will encounter an entrepreneur who is prolific on the idea front, with tremendous expertise and technical knowledge to go along with it, but not a clue about creating a business opportunity around it.

Do you know the difference between creativity and innovation?  Creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas and create new ideas.  Innovation is creativity plus opportunity.  In class we would call it the “innovation equation” – creativity + opportunity = innovation. Of course, a good idea is critical, but it’s just the first step of many. The real challenge for higher education is not whether to teach entrepreneurship, rather it’s how to teach it and to whom.

Academia is wonderfully steeped in tradition, theory and thought leadership. But, as can be the case sometimes, a strength can also be a weakness. As a result, higher education is painfully slow to change. Conversely, entrepreneurship is all about disruption, practicality and boots on the ground.

The ability to be agile, adaptable, and make quick decisions, often under pressure, is critical. “Pivot” is a word we all like to use. Translation: change can be an everyday, sometimes an every hour, occurrence.  Entrepreneurship is dynamic at best, and chaotic at worst. Get the picture?

Entrepreneurship and academia are not exactly symbiotic.  The extremes in entrepreneurship have been magnified in the past 30 years with the acceleration of technology.

Meanwhile, this idea of entrepreneurial education has only been around in a meaningful way for those same few decades. That’s about the right amount of time for academics to assimilate, discuss, think, discuss again, study, write papers, attend conferences, do research, discuss again, think some more, publish, and finally, very thoughtfully, create curriculum that effectively instructs.

The Balance of Theory and Practice
As we move forward, education appears poised and ready to play an important role in the success of entrepreneurial ventures, especially business education. Entrepreneurship now has enough critical mass and track record to be studied. There’s much to be learned from this. The key is the right balance of theory and practice. And, that’s where academics are going to have to give a little.

Typically, in higher education, the scales tip greatly to the scholar who has studied, but never or rarely practiced. With entrepreneurship education, the opposite must prevail.  Practitioners, as we who “do” are called, must be the backbone, teaching what we have learned through the school of hard knocks, succeeding and failing, complemented greatly by the scholar whose wisdom and knowledge both inspires and helps to create a path. So, can higher ed teach tomorrow’s entrepreneurs? Absolutely!


Cari Coats is a member of the adjunct faculty and executive director of the Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship at the Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College.




This article appears in the December 2014 issue of i4 Business.
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