By Shalini Khemka, CEO of the London Entrepreneurial Exchange
It’s a perennial debate – are entrepreneurs “born” or “made”? And yet while, yes, some people may show more natural flair for self-starting and innovation than others, there’s no doubt that the key to a country’s entrepreneurial strength is education.
Also it’s an increasingly high-profile topic of debate and focus among governments, academia and international economic bodies, such as the World Economic Forum, which last year made ‘Entrepreneurship Education’ one of the top priorities for its Global Education Initiative.
The most recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report on education found that the British educational system and social culture were less conducive to entrepreneurship than those of the US or Europe’s “innovation-led” economies. To address this lag, we must ensure a greater priority for entrepreneurial disciplines in schools and in higher education. We should be embarrassed at how, while the US has had thriving entrepreneurism departments at its universities for some half a century, only in the past number of years have we even begun to play catch-up. And we must more fully take on board that entrepreneurism education is a vital means of creating an enterprise culture, a more enterprising workforce and of directly driving innovation.
At primary level, we should embed and foster the key elements of entrepreneurial behaviour – curiosity, creativity, autonomy and initiative. Being an astronaut is well and good, but when was the last time you heard a six-year-old say “I want to be an entrepreneur”? And yet, if we want a future economic generation that is productive, stimulating – and happy – this is a role that should be aspired to.
Secondary schools should take greater initiatives to associate students to real companies and business people in order to give them an understanding of how enterprise works in the real world. Educational credits should be awarded for pursuing links with business and enterprise, and schools should strive to bring in business people to the school who can share their views and inspiration as well as mentor students on projects. Careers guidance should also focus more on the possibilities offered by entrepreneurship and provide opportunities for work experience within the area. Lastly, there should be an attempt to incorporate how successful a school is in fostering entrepreneurship as part of the criteria on which is it is judged, not purely on how many pupils it manages to send to universities.
As alluded to above, UK universities have only recently embraced entrepreneurship as a discipline. The Master of Enterprise qualification, for instance, now offered by several universities is an exciting development. And universities should integrate entrepreneurship across different subjects, and all disciplines should develop opportunities for students to experience entrepreneurship and to develop their academic interests into ways of entering the real-life crucible of business. The number of business enterprises, often hi-tech or scientific, that we are seeing being spun off from university departments is a promising indication of this culture strengthening.
Education, of course, does not stop as one leaves through the university gates. Businesses should be encouraged to provide ongoing development for staff that strengthens their entrepreneurial skills. An Ernst & Young survey last year found that more than half of entrepreneurial leaders described themselves as “transitioned” – that is, they had previously worked outside of entrepreneurship before launching their business. The entrepreneurial community should be encouraged to seek ways to share experience and know-how with other parts of the business world. Mentoring programmes for those taking the leap into individual enterprise is one such way.
So let’s put to the side the age-old discussion of whether entrepreneurs are born with certain skills and dispositions. And instead get on with the business of making them.
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