Grassroots shake up of the Entrepreneurship Education Community

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute Jonathan OrtmansThis past Friday I was surrounded by entrepreneurship education leaders from all sectors the Future of Entrepreneurship Education Summit, a gathering held at the University of Central Florida where actors of our entrepreneurship ecosystem met alongside established entrepreneurship educators to discuss current trends and ideas to nourish the entrepreneurship mindset.

The summit was typical in as much as it focused on sharing ideas. However, it was different from others in that it brought together both the traditional players in entrepreneurship education with some of those driving a few of the latest grassroots initiatives aimed at supporting aspiring growth entrepreneurs. The breadth of stakeholders is natural. As the Kauffman Panel on Entrepreneurship Curriculum in Higher Education concluded in a recent report, a canon or single approach to entrepreneurship education is unrealistic given the wide array of educational models, practices and institutional types. But it also made sense for another reason. It was clear to me that the older attendees—such as myself—had much to learn from the younger thinkers in the room as to what interventions and help are necessary to have impact.

Serial entrepreneur Jeff Hoffman, founder of firms such as, told a story illustrating how much things have changed by sharing that Yale threatened to kick him out for starting a business as a student. However, it is not enough anymore to simply celebrate how “many” universities and high schools offer an entrepreneurship curriculum or degree. It is apparent to me the challenge has not been one of societal acceptance for some time now, but rather of the quality of the entrepreneurship education being offered.

The wisdom came from legends like David Cohen, founder of TechStars, who spoke at lunch about the gaping hole between what is formally taught now and what matters in accelerating more startups. I found myself scribbling more insights from the Young Entrepreneur Panel with folks like:

And of course we have much to learn from the folks who organized the conference from Extreme Entrepreneurship, an organization that brings the country's top young entrepreneurs together to help spread the entrepreneurial mindset on hundreds of college campuses through conferences, virtual broadcasts, and a virtual business incubator.

The corporate sector, as the beneficiary of a stronger talent pool and productivity-enhancing innovations, also shared insights at the Summit. For example, we heard from leaders of the Cisco Entrepreneur Institute, which has taken part of the responsibility for developing a skilled workforce. The Institute supports entrepreneurs by working with local government and business organizations to foster the growth and success of small businesses and start-ups.

The U.S. government has also increased its entrepreneurship education efforts. It is also interesting to note that many of these efforts are now, for example, spearheaded by former business founders (rather than career bureaucrats) who have a clearer understanding of the talent needs of entrepreneurs and their teams than their predecessors. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, created in 2009 and represented by Paul J. Corson at the summit, focuses on the commercialization of university technology developed through federally funded research. The White House’s Startup America initiative is in turn led by many entrepreneurial people like Doug Rand, a policy advisor who was co-founder and CEO of the innovative publishing company Playscripts, Inc.., as well as a co-founder of the review aggregator StageGrade.

What is certain is that entrepreneurship has been recognized as a key element in not only undergraduate and graduate curriculum, but also in the evaluation of faculty, co-curricular activities, and the management of universities, businesses and other organizations. This potential has been tapped lately in many institutions, perhaps in large part as a response to the recent turbulent economic times. Like companies themselves, colleges and universities have responded through programs that prepared their graduates to create jobs and opportunities. But it is the likes of the University of Miami’s Launch Pad that are springing up across the country and seem to be making entrepreneurship the fastest-growing field of study on campus.

Enthusiastic university faculty have not been left behind. Take the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), for example. This grassroots group of university faculty has grown to an internationally known knowledge base and resource center that supports and promotes technology innovation and entrepreneurship to create experiential learning opportunities for students. The NCIIA provides a linked sequence of grants and programs that move student entrepreneurs from innovative ideas to launching start-up companies. No wonder media publications, such as the StartupDigest, has expanded its content to cover events of interest to university members, along founders and investors.

It seems self evident that earlier exposure to entrepreneurship is vital. Who hasn’t as a kid been shown the inventiveness, enthusiasm and drive of great entrepreneurs—either through a school science project, a neighborhood lemonade stand, a lawn mowing businesses, or a growing babysitting clientele? We should not let the young lose their natural entrepreneurial proclivity. But we need to be more sophisticated now about how we teach it.

The growing movement to plant the seeds of entrepreneurial thinking beyond our borders may have new answers in the future. While one can narrowly view international advancements in entrepreneurship education as competition, my own experience mustering all kinds of organizations from around the world to host Global Entrepreneurship Week activities tells me they can teach us something. In many countries, people have looked beyond the constraints of conventions and traditions to find new opportunities for young people to apply their business ideas to real world problems and challenges.

Discussions about these endeavors at the Future of Entrepreneurship Education Summit were archived. I recommend it for individuals or groups interested in helping develop more innovative strategies for funding and promoting the entrepreneurial mindset. We might not all prefer one approach or the other, but we can all agree that investments in elevating the quality of entrepreneurship education can lead students on a path to self-sufficiency and to become productive citizens that sustain economic growth.

Another area where there should be broad agreement is in advancing student achievement in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Researchers have often found a strong correlation between advanced education in a STEM field and high rates of entrepreneurship and innovation. This is illustrated by the fact that students who understand the logic of math and science often become the world’s most successful entrepreneurs. Clearly, we need new approaches to advance the number of students who will excel in math and science and become the next generation of entrepreneurs.

And we must not stop there. The explosion of entrepreneurship education programs cannot stay as a collection of personal anecdotes. This is why the Kauffman Foundation formed an educational research consortium to build an infrastructure to collect data and uncover the most effective teaching and learning methods.

At a time with record unemployment levels and unprecedented environmental and social challenges, integrating entrepreneurial thinking into education at all levels is vitally important to give people the opportunity to create their own jobs and bring to market life-changing innovations. But it appears this is now commonly acknowledged. The new task at hand is to retire dated methodologies and put their talented advocates into the same mindset as the organic startup ecosphere they are trying to propagate.

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Jonathan Ortmans is president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues. In this capacity, he leads the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship, focused on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation.

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