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Nurturing the Entrepreneurial Spirit of the Young

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

Today, I would like to discuss the education-related recommendations outlined at the Kauffman Foundation’s State of Entrepreneurship address. We have long been aware that American education is struggling to stay competitive. We also know that the development of entrepreneurial skills, such as opportunity recognition and prudent risk taking, are not prioritized in most U.S. educational institutions. Developing tomorrow’s talented, capable innovators is a challenge that will require entrepreneurially-driven improvements in education at all levels.

Programs that introduce students to the possibilities of business creation are few, but they have proven that they can open up new horizons for talented kids and unleash an entrepreneurial drive would otherwise lay dormant. The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, does great work in this area, primarily in urban cores. NFTE has been helping high school students from low-income communities improve their business, academic and life skills. Through entrepreneurship education and business competition programs, NFTE gives students opportunities to interact with seasoned entrepreneurs, inspiring them to channel their energy toward transforming their ideals into real-life ventures. 

Fortunately, there seems to be a lot interest in executing programs like NFTE on a larger scale, here and abroad. As the U.S. seeks solutions to joblessness, policymakers and the media have been looking at NFTE’s skillful ability to tap on our youth’s inventiveness and entrepreneurial potential. The media has been highlighting NFTE’s impressive results. A Harvard University study found that NFTE’s participants’ interest in attending college increased 32 percent after taking the entrepreneurship course, while their job aspirations rose 44 percent. President Obama invited the winners of NFTE’s 2009 National Youth Entrepreneurship Competition to a meeting in the Oval Office last fall, but we have yet to see whether he will vow to bring NFTE-like programs to every community in America.

At the college level, there’s a powerful new model for entrepreneurship education: the University of Miami’s Launch Pad program. The Launch Pad provides advice and guidance, connects ideas, people and resources, and builds relationships within the local business community. Housed in the university’s career counseling center, Launch Pad makes resources available to its entire student body and requires no prerequisites or coursework. In fact, almost 80 percent of the student entrepreneurs have come from outside the business school. Created in September 2008, after only a year more 750 students and alumni had signed up, and more than 300 ventures that had received consulting from entrepreneurs, inventors, and business professionals. This program is a breakthrough educational innovation which presents entrepreneurship as a legitimate career path.

We cannot forget about the smart graduate and post-doctoral students in the hard sciences, engineering, and other fields at our universities. Unfortunately, many of their great ideas never get commercialized. We have 47,000 postdoctoral fellows in the U.S. and we are underutilizing their talent. Often, it is because the student doesn’t know how to go about the commercialization process. As Carl Schramm suggested, the federal government should pay for commercialization fellowships, along with special training and mentoring to open the doors for our postdoctoral students to become scientific founders.

Andreas Schleicher, Education Policy Advisor of the OECD Secretary-General, put it succinctly at a March 9 presentation at the Wilson Center: the yardstick for success is no longer just improvement by national standards but the best performing education systems globally. We cannot afford to allow the entrepreneurial spirit in our youth to lay dormant. Programs to improve education take time to implement and to impact students and the economy. We need to start now. Entrepreneurship education offers a proven way to start turning our students into high-impact contributors to economic expansion, innovation and job creation.

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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