It’s almost impossible these days to find a business school that doesn’t think it can teach entrepreneurship. Many students think, “Great, all I need is to hand over a substantial amount of hard-earned cash, and in a few years I’ll be running my own successful company and living the free enterprise dream.” But can you really learn how to create a business from scratch? Or – as a 2009 study by King’s College in the UK has suggested – are the necessary qualities of an entrepreneur actually built into a person’s DNA?
My doubts about this are fuelled by the fact that few of the most prominent examples of entrepreneurship – including Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs – have spent time at a business school, aside from making a speech or awarding a prize. But am I missing something?
Of course, all of the most serious players in the business education field will tell you that their job is not to create entrepreneurs from scratch, but to point those with nascent ability in the right direction. If the raw material isn’t there already, even the most enthusiastic and informed professor isn’t going to help you create the next Apple or Facebook.
The right steps
How do schools actually go about liberating your “inner entrepreneur”? Hans Crijns of the Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School talks about breaking the process down into three relatively simple steps. First, there is the awareness raising stage, a sort of self-analysis procedure where students question what they are aiming to do, how they are going to achieve it and whether they have the requisite abilities to do so. The next is a development of key soft skills such as negotiation and dealing with other people. And the third step hones in on core business disciplines, such as marketing and finance, which are vital for getting a new enterprise off the ground.
Perhaps not surprisingly, wherever entrepreneurship is taught effectively, the focus always seems to be on the practical rather than the theoretical. Usually this means receiving guidance from not only top academics, but also individuals who have stepped onto the battlefield of new business creation and lived to tell the tale.
The Desautels Faculty of Management at Canada’s McGill University, for example, does this through the Dobson Cup. The competition for start-ups is judged by individuals who have already set up and are running a successful business. The winners come away with a trophy, but the real aim of the contest is to create what the school describes as an “entrepreneurship ecosystem,” where new ideas are cultivated with the experience and expertise of successful entrepreneurs.
Competitions are one way of exposing students to role models, advisors and investors. Another increasingly popular model are on- or off-campus support centers that go under a seemingly endless range of names, including “incubator.”
One of the most established incubators is based at the EM Lyon Business School in France. It is a hot-house of resources encompassing academic research, guidance from past graduates, and access to possible investors – in addition to more down-to-earth help like chairs, desks and computers. The support appears to pay off: Although the overall success rate for start-up companies in France has only been about 50% over the past five years, organizations born in the EM Lyon incubator have hit the 85% mark.
According to the incubator’s director, Michel Coster, one of the major reasons is because the approach is ideal for the new generation of hi-tech entrepreneurs, who are often brilliant technically but short on commercial know-how to turn a great idea into a viable business. Evidence from the US seems to back up Coster’s assertion. The Entrepreneurship Center at MIT in the US is always happy to point out that its graduates are responsible for setting up over 25,000 thriving businesses, which employ more than 3 million people and generate so much revenue that, if they were a country, they would be hovering just outside the world’s top 10 economies.
A business school education is certainly not essential for the budding entrepreneur; there are plenty of very rich and successful people around the world whose careers prove that. If an individual has what Nyenrode’s Willem Burggraaf neatly describes as the “character and guts to recognize an opportunity and seize it,” then it can certainly point them in the right direction.
But for many, a business school’s potent mix of commercial basics, war stories from business owners, a network of international contacts, and academic objectivity can make all the difference. Perhaps that’s what distinguishes a thriving, profitable enterprise from what Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters called a “half a page of scribbled lines.”