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Tim Berry on business planning, starting and growing your business, and having a life in the meantime.

Can B-Schools Teach Entrepreneurship? 15

The question continues: study entrepreneurship, or just jump in? Does a degree help? Can anybody teach entrepreneurship in the classroom? Can anybody learn it?

You may have seen this post here from last week, about one problem with entrepreneurship education. That post was enhanced by John Wren’s comment there:

I haven’t seen any research that shows a connection between being a successful entrepreneur and having studied entrepreneurship, have you?

Interesting emphasis on research there. Can anything be true or false without research? Does a tree fall in the forest if there’s no rigorous research that says so? It would be hard to research this right, because entrepreneurship is a relatively new idea in university business schools. The idea has exploded in the last 10-20 years, but a lot of the all-stars didn’t really have a choice. That makes meaningful research less likely.

Research or not, education is good when it works; when it fits with life. Short cuts are good too. Knowledge is good. Wasting time is bad. All of that can be school.

Education in trade or business related subjects is about making things better, faster, and easier. If you can learn in a day in class what would take you a roller-coaster ride through the hard knocks, is that better? If Bill Gates did Microsoft without studying entrepreneurship, does that mean you don’t want to?

Things change. Shakespeare didn’t have a PhD in Literature. So how did he learn Shakespeare?

I think the value of studying entrepreneurship depends a lot on the specific case. Not that these are the only cases, or polar opposites, but:

  • Start with the basic truth of studying what interests you. Don’t study business to get ahead in business; study business because you’re interested. Don’t study literature to get ahead, or science or math, either.
  • If life gives you a valid choice, general education is better than business education. I’m really glad I studied Literature first, then Journalism, then business. I’m glad my children majored in education, history, psychology, and political science instead of business. First learn to think, analyze, read, and write, and you can learn business later. Not everybody gets that choice. Not everybody wants it. But if you can, that’s good.
  • Entrepreneurship is the best of business. You have to get your head around the whole business, not some functional part. Studying entrepreneurship is the best way to study business.
  • It’s not for nothing that I’ve spend a long time focused mainly on business planning. That’s also about getting around the whole business, not just parts. Strategy, operations, marketing, finance, they all come together in startups and small business. Which we call entrepreneurship.
  • When it works out right for you it can be a big advantage, you’re already in school, and you’re interested in the subject, it’s a natural part of that time of life that people dedicate to learning, it can be a huge advantage. I did business school exactly at a career inflection point, jumping from business journalism to business, and it worked really well for me. Entrepreneurship would have been even better, but that wasn’t an option. Today, for you, it is.

Ultimately, there’s no formula here that works. You have to decide for yourself. I’m really glad for my two years in business school, even if they weren’t teaching entrepreneurship. That doesn’t mean I recommend it for everybody.

  • http://collegebizkid.blogspot.com Mneiae

    Taking an English class at college is not a waste of time and majoring in English does mean that you have to be an English teacher later on. Stephenie Meyer is not representative of the majority of English-degree holders, it’s true, but she is not an English teacher.

    Soft skills are becoming more valued in the business world, mostly because they weren’t emphasized earlier, which has led to some basically illiterate MBAs. It is interesting to note that some companies specifically look for candidates with good communication skills.

    Currently, I am pursuing the undergraduate business degree and then MBA route. It could change, but I don’t think that I have necessarily limited my options or my education by majoring in business. I am not the average college student and I have a lot of class credit that doesn’t count toward my degree. This is not because I am exploring majors; rather, it is because I am interested in a variety of topics and like taking classes about them.

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  • http://www.fountainheadMBA.com fountainheadMBA

    As somebody rightly pointed out that b-schools can’t teach entrepreneurship in their current structure. What we need is the “restructuring” of b-schools, which want to teach entrepreneurship!
    A B-schools needs to be less of a school and more of an incubation center. The time spent at a B-school should be designed in a way, so that the aspiring-entrepreneur can try his hands on various practical things while working on his ideas, with guidance & support from successful entrepreneurs.

  • http://www.JohnWren.com John Wren

    Seems my friends aren’t interested in discussing this. I’m surprised. Maybe when they have more time over the weekend. I’m going to Re-Tweet.

  • http://www.JohnWren.com John Wren

    I hope this discussion will continue, seems to me that it has the potential of bearing real fruit.

    I just posted a link to it on my website and notified some of my friends about it, and I encourage each of you reading this to do the same.

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  • http://www.tecaclub.com Kip Marlow

    John is right. There is no correlation between college courses and entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs have a special mindset. They are achievers, life long learners, and constantly get the “thrill of invention”. This can’t be taught, especially on the University level. Better to have it taught on the community college level, with real world entrepreneurs doing the teaching.

  • http://www.chewsbetter.com Kurt

    I disagree with most of these posts. For my entire life, I always wanted to start a business. I started a house painting business in college and I launched a week-long winter festival in undergrad (that is now entering it’s 11th year!). After college, I tried starting another business with my friend. Through this process, I learned that anyone can start a business, however, if you don’t understand current entrepreneurial trends and concepts, your chances of success are greatly diminished. Therefore, I decided to attend Babson which has an incredible program for teaching entrepreneurship (and business). While I was there, I learned the core business skills I would need to understand and grow my business. Also, in 2 years, I wrote 3 business plans for myself, developed a product for a startup, developed 2 different products for myself, wrote a strategic marketing plan for a startup, I pitched my business plans to VC’s and Angels, and much more. Keep in mind that I did this all under the supervision of top professors (most who are themselves entrepreneurs) and mentors who helped guide and refine my experiences. I am confident that Babson taught me the entrepreneurial skills that will greatly increase my chances of success.

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  • http://www.jayparkhe.com Jay Parkhe

    Dear Tim,
    I liked these posts. Time was when I introduced BPlans software in B Schools in India when over 200 B Schools were using this already and India had none.
    Well, I am a failed entrepreneur myself who became one out of need to survive. And survive, I did for good 3 years !
    I always felt that some day, like Business Planning softwares an Entrepreneurship simulation software would come on the scene and as an expert failed entrepreneur I could teach this.
    Thanks
    Jay

  • http://www.babson.edu Michael Chmura

    There is no doubt that business schools can teach entrepreneurship. According to Babson College Entrepreneurship Professor Candy Brush, “entrepreneurship is not just teaching business and management skills. It involves teaching techniques and approaches for identifying, creating, and evaluating opportunities; approaches to acquire, and transform resources (money, people, social, organizational, technological, and physical) and processes for building a capable team to do so.” You can read more about here reasoning at http://blogs.babson.edu/babson_news_blog/2009/10/15/entrepreneurship-nature-or-nurture/

    • http://timberry.com Tim Berry

      Thanks Michael, I appreciate the addition.

  • http://cor.kz Brooks

    Tim, I think there are a couple of issues that are conflated here. I personally don’t think a B-school can teach entrepreneurship in the same way that I don’t think an art school can teach one to be a brilliant artist.

    However, that’s not what B-schools *or* art schools are trying to do. Both start with the assumption that you’re only there because you want to be, and that you’re looking to improve skills relevant to your passion. They’re not trying to instill or create that passion, just help educate you to help you make better choices within the work you do.

    Also note that most MBA programs that offer an “entrepreneurship” focus are really general purpose programs that have a few electives that are more relevant to startups (entity choice, early stage investment, etc). If you went to such a program and went for a general MBA, you’d just be swapping those classes out for something else, like manufacturing process management or marketing or whatever.

    As for research, there was actually an interesting piece recently on TechCrunch:
    http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/10/24/got-degree-envy-no-worries-you-can-still-make-it-big/

    That piece doesn’t get at all of the specifics relevant to this conversation, but it’s interesting nonetheless. At the least, it seems that having some kind of degree correlates with more successful businesses (causation wasn’t examined; it could be that people who build better businesses are more likely to stay in college rather than drop out, for instance).

    I guess my position is that you can’t educate someone into being interested in something, but they probably wouldn’t ask you to anyway. And given an interest, I’m willing to believe that B-schools at least do no harm, and may do some good (if nothing else, in the contacts one makes with people who have similar interests).

    • http://timberry.com Tim Berry

      @Brooks: thanks, I like the art school reference, I think that adds some interesting insight. And I think you’re right about the entrepreneurship focus, at least in many cases.

  • http://www.smartsymbols.com Stas Antons

    Hi Tim,
    Agreed; I wish there was an option of studying entrepreneurship when I was at school as well. I also wish there was a definition, or a description of entrepreneurship, at the time that made sense.
    This one would have worked: “Entrepreneurship: getting around the whole business, not just parts. Strategy, operations, marketing, finance, they all come together in startups and small business.”
    :)

    Thanks,
    -Stas
    SmartSymbols

  • http://www.JohnWren.com John Wren

    With the notable exception of Dr. Amar Bhide http://www.bhide.net the so-called entrepreneurship programs and most books and articles on startup preach the venture capital model of market research and formal strategic planning. It seems fair to hold them up to their own standard.

    So I repeat what seems to me a fair question: Where is the research showing a connection between the academic study of entrepreneurship and startup success.

    I value my liberal arts undergraduate education at Cornell College and the University of Denver that resulted in a BA, and the ability to continue as a life-long learner.

    At DU I dropped an English class when the professor explained that there is only reason to major in English: To teach English. Seems to me business professors should be just as honest. The only reason for an undergraduate education in business school is to prepare for a career as a business teacher at the high school or college level.

    I vividly recall a study published in the 70s by some institute for financial executives. It evaluated career success and education backgrounds. Most successful: Liberal arts undergraduate education and an MBA. Least successful: undergraduate business and an MBA. 2nd most successful: Liberal arts alone!

    Tim, you say here that when possible it’s best to choose a general education. When is this not possible?

    • http://timberry.com Tim Berry

      Thanks John, once again a very useful comment. I love your research summary in your secon- to-bottom paragraph. That makes a lot of sense to me, and matches my own experience too.

      Re your question, when is it not possible to choose a general education: I think we have to respect the cases in which the money isn’t there, families have problems, so a compromise business education is possible when general education followed by grad school isn’t. And I’ve known people who studied business as an undergrad because that was what they wanted to study. That wasn’t my case or yours, but it does happen. And in that case, I think those people should study what interests them.

  • http://twitter.com/thinkingaloud Just someone who thinks

    Business school teaches business, doesn’t teach Entrepreneurship.
    Look at the teachers, they are academia people, with their ultimate goal in life to acquire tenure (aka: job security).
    Now, their worldview and frame of mind is so far off from the worldviews and frame of mind of the Entrepreneur.

    Therefore NO WAY b-schools can teach Entrepreneurship, at least no as B-school are structured today.