Business schools once shunned entrepreneurship as a field of teaching and study. Today, it is the fastest growing discipline in business education. Driven by student demand, the emergence of the entrepreneurial economy and new research in the field, over 1,400 colleges and universities now have courses, programs and centers in entrepreneurship. As courses have developed, professors have emphasized experiential learning. Programs in entrepreneurship thus feature initiatives such as internships with entrepreneurial firms, field studies of entrepreneurs and business plan competitions. The cornerstone of experiential learning, however, has become the entrepreneur in the classroom.
Why Use Entrepreneurs in the Classroom?
As teachers seek to provide as rewarding a learning experience as possible for their students, they are turning to entrepreneurs to enhance the classroom environment. From a teacher's perspective, entrepreneurs do the following for their courses:
- Provide a reality check. Entrepreneurs bring real-time and real-world knowledge that complements and extends the traditional academic environment. Their been-there-done-that experience helps to make lessons come alive and gives students the opportunity to gain practical knowledge.
- Reinforce messages. By talking about what works and what doesn't, entrepreneurs reinforce key points that a textbook or readings may make and also back up the teacher's instruction. Their stories are an additional way to communicate strategies, tactics and approaches that are under discussion in the class.
- Add pizzazz. Entrepreneurs, especially those who are well-known nationally and regionally, add excitement to the learning process. Because their reputations precede them, they help to spark interest in entrepreneurship and build enthusiasm for the course.
- Inspire. Entrepreneurs are role models, living proof that building a successful business can be done. They serve to motivate students, and in the best cases, demonstrate how values and ethics are part of the entrepreneurial process.
Entrepreneur as Performer
Entrepreneurs present to classes for several reasons. They gain personal satisfaction from sharing their knowledge and experience with others. By interacting with young, talented and smart students, they have the opportunity to look at issues from a different perspective, so the session becomes a learning opportunity for them. The presentation helps to build ties to the school, which may help the business in the long run. And, especially for alumni, it's a way to give back to a worthy institution and effort.
To give a great performance in the classroom—one that has substance, meaning and impact—you should approach it as you would an important presentation to a key client or to potential investors to raise money for your firm. Specifically, you should:
- Understand the purpose. When you are asked to present to a class, find out what the teacher wants to achieve, how your experience fits the subject and what specific, value added you can bring to the topic under discussion. Request a course syllabus and class outline so that you know how and where you fit in the scope of the course. Ask for an overview of any points to cover or themes to reinforce.
- Learn about the audience. Ask for demographics on the students. You might even get biographical sketches on them, which will help you understand their backgrounds and perhaps aspirations. This information will also help you pitch your remarks to the appropriate level (graduate or undergraduate) and experience base of the students.
- Prepare the presentation. After reading the syllabus and any advance information, make an outline. Identify the key points you want to make and list the examples you will use from your experience to demonstrate those points. Determine the format you'll use, such as overhead transparencies or PowerPoint. It's important to think in terms of putting yourself in the students' shoes. Then, review this plan with the faculty member to make sure you are on track.
- Involve the students. During the presentation, keep the total time for your remarks to 15-20 minutes, anticipating that additional time will be needed for questions during your remarks and at the end of your presentation. Ask the students questions to get their input. Quiz them on whether they think you did the right thing on a particular issue. Seek their opinions on the topic.
- Ask for feedback. After your presentation, ask the faculty member for a personal assessment of the session and his or her take on what the students thought. Most faculty will debrief students on your content and format to get the most out of the learning experience. This feedback will be valuable for you as you do other presentations to classes.
The Best and the Worst Performers
Entrepreneurs who do well in the classroom, who provide both wisdom and practical knowledge and who leave a positive impression on students, demonstrate several talents. They best do the following:
- Connect with students. Good performers bring a thoughtful, analytic perspective to the real-life experience they offer. They demonstrate that they have reflected on what they have been through and have learned from that. They are not prescriptive. Rather than tell students what to do, they interact with them to help them come to their own conclusions.
- Speak truthfully. In talking about their companies and themselves, effective presenters are honest about what happened and the impact it has had on them. They talk without pretense about the bad as well as the good. They speak from the heart as well as the head.
- Show concern for students. By being attuned to the topic and course and by seeking the opinion of students during the presentation, effective presenters demonstrate that they want to learn as well as teach. They come to class knowing some of the students' names and backgrounds. They may even prepare handouts, stay after class to meet students or provide contact information for students who would like to follow up with them.
Entrepreneurs who are disasters in the classroom also demonstrate some common failings. Here's what not to do.
- Come unprepared. Poor performers don't put time into the presentation, are unfamiliar with the purpose of the course or the specific topic of the class and show little or no personal reflection on their own experience. They often give a canned speech or simply tell their own war stories. The result is the worst of all possible outcomes—they come across as simply boring.
- Ignore the audience. Poor presenters, who don't know the nature of the audience, talk down to students. They don't appreciate how savvy today's students really are. Instead of interacting, they lecture, ignoring questions, and then rush out at the end of class. The clear message they convey is that this is not a priority with them, and they would rather be somewhere else.
- Pontificate. Presentations turn into disasters when entrepreneurs become so "I" focused that their own arrogance overwhelms any message they are trying to convey. Instead of using the talk as a learning experience, disappointing presenters list their credentials, try to tell students how to live their lives and drop names in an attempt to impress them. It doesn't work.
- Run amok on time. The worst presenters show disdain for the time constraints of the session. They get off message, take up far more class time than they are allocated and prevent the teacher and students from utilizing the limited time available in the most efficient manner.
Lighting a Fire
The poet William Butler Yeats observed, "Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire." A great performance by an entrepreneur in the classroom can and should spark interest, generate enthusiasm, and energize action. When entrepreneurs go into the classroom, they have the opportunity and responsibility to add value to the learning process, to share their best knowledge and experience, and to make a difference in the lives of others. Doing this well can be extraordinarily satisfying and rewarding. Just as important, when entrepreneurs seek not only to teach but also to learn, then the educational fire can burn within them as well.
Ray Smilor President Beyster Institute for Entrepreneurial Employee Ownership