Everywhere you look, there are programs that “create entrepreneurs“, classes that “teach entrepreneurship“, schools that “turn students into entrepreneurs”.
In reality, most entrepreneurship programs never produce successful student entrepreneurs, and they never expect to. Their goal is to teach some generic business knowledge to some high school and/or college students, and let them “practice” by participating in a mock pitch competition. Doing so either makes a buck for the school, or allows the organization to say that they have an entrepreneurship program. (which sounds much better than not having one)
So what are the few key things that productive programs do to actually help students start successful companies? Definitely not lectures about business models.
1. Specialized Mentorship
Entrepreneurs are self-producers, and students are no different when thrown into the business world. They do not need instructors to tell them how to do this and do that, because there is no set way to succeed when starting a company. Many times, there are no definite right or wrong answers, and that’s why mentors are crucial to student’s success. Having mentors assures that students can get advice tailored to their cause, instead of a generic lesson taught to a classroom of students all starting different types of companies.
For example, students developing a hardware product should have mentors that specialize in 3D design, rapid prototyping, and/or manufacturing. If it’s a consumer product they are building, they need a go-to market mentor that can help launch the product. If it’s a B2B product, they need someone with B2B experience.
2. Real Technical Resources to Create Prototypes
Students building a hardware product probably do not have their own 3D printers or CNC machines at home, and need these provided to them by any program they choose to attend. In a similar fashion, students creating software products or apps need to have access to rapid education to learn basic programming/coding. Creating a mockup does not suffice. Students should always have the resources to create a working, presentable prototype. Otherwise, how can you pitch to investors? How can teams launch to market and sell to real customers?
3. Sales Channels to Generate Revenue
One of my oldest mentors told me years ago that: “Teaching entrepreneurship without selling is like teaching cooking with a microwave”. Entrepreneurship programs should be not only responsible for pushing students to create a product and pitch, they should be able to sell to paying customers/users. Fundraising is not entrepreneurship. It is only a supplement. Fundraising and pitching can be part of an entrepreneurship program’s curriculum, but it shouldn’t be the ultimate goal that student’s work for. Their ultimate goal should be to create a real business, which requires real sales.
Programs should be able to provide mentors with ample sales experience who can develop a revenue channel for student businesses. Students mostly have never had to sell something in their educational lives, so teaching them to develop sales channels and actually sell their product/services is definitely easier said than done. It can be done, however, with the right people and experience.
Entrepreneurship is not easy, and it’s even more difficult to teach. Programs need to raise their own standards so that students do not get a fake impression of what entrepreneurship truly is.
It’s essential that we do not give the impression that real entrepreneurship stops at ideation and pitching in front of a few judges.
Entrepreneurship education should not just be a money-making cash cow for higher institutions and programs, but an opportunity to teach ambitious students how to start REAL companies. For program directors, this is not just a suggestion, but a responsibility.