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Member News: C.C. Eship / NACCE Journal Spring/Summer 2011

Can We Teach Entrepreneurship?

Monday, April 25, 2011   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Matthew Montoya
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By Tim Berry, President and Founder
Palo Alto Software

Let's think about this nature vs. nurture controversy in entrepreneurship. Is entrepreneurship something you're born with or something you learn? Can we really teach entrepreneurship?

If you're reading this you're probably teaching entrepreneurship somewhere, and you're probably also an entrepreneur. One thing I've learned in two years of work with NACCE is that most of us who teach entrepreneurship are also entrepreneurs. I've met you at the conferences. We've talked. Like me, you've had your years in the front lines of entrepreneurship, starting your business, running your business, and dealing with the real world. And now you take the time to teach others.

Me too; I've taught entrepreneurship to undergrads, 14 three-credit courses in 11 years. I also started a business that's 25 years old with 44 employees, multi-million-dollar sales, no outside investment, and no debt. I was a co-founder of one that went public before its fourth birthday. And I have a Stanford MBA degree.

Valuing An Entrepreneur's Business Education

The value of my business school experience was in what I learned, not what I earned. The value wasn't salary. Like so many MBAs do, I recruited into the wrong job out of business school, and I didn't stay, so I couldn't pretend the MBA degree helped me make a higher salary as an employee. I went back to the consulting firm I'd worked with before the degree, and left to go on my own a couple of years later. So my employability and post-MBA salary power was a moot point.

The value wasn't entrepreneurship. School didn't make me an entrepreneur. I was at business school before entrepreneurship was fashionable. Stanford had one course called Small Business Management, which, fortunately, was about developing a business plan, starting a company, and getting venture capital. That course was exciting, the idea of my own business was exciting, and I learned a lot about the process and the plan; but it was just one course.

The value was what I learned about the nuts and bolts of doing business. I had been a journalist. Business school taught me the basics of accounting, finance, cash flow, organizational theory, leadership theory, marketing, and operations. That knowledge gave me the confidence to go ahead on my own. I felt like I knew enough about business basics to understand how to run things myself.

What We Can and Can't Teach

So, going from that life experience into the nature-vs-nurture in entrepreneurship question, I say 1.) there is never going to be a definitive answer to that question. 2.) The best guess is that it's a mix of both, and it depends a lot on the specific case. 3.) Teaching entrepreneurship is valuable regardless of how you answer that question. In all logical cases – the nature, the nurture, or both – teaching entrepreneurship is valuable.

Take the first case: let's assume for a bit that entrepreneurship is in fact something in the entrepreneur's nature. Let's say it's like jumping off of a bridge and some people will do it and some people won't. Even if that's the case – and I'm not saying it is – then teaching entrepreneurship won't influence whether or not they jump, but we can still teach them about what jumping means, how to aim and target the jump, and what jumping has been like for other people. We can give them skills that will help them jump correctly. We can give them skills that will help them understand the dangers, and avoid the avoidable risks. We can give them tools that will help them see – or make an educated guess about – what's underneath the surface of the water. And that means that we teach them about startups and the variety of startups. We teach them how some startups get investment and others bootstrap. We teach them how to project sales, costs, expenses, profits, balance, and cash flow. We teach them how to focus on their business identity and their market needs to make strategy. We teach them how to develop a business plan suitable to real needs – formal or not, depending on the situation. We teach them about finding professionals and managing administration, and so on. All of that helps those who are the born entrepreneurs do it better. We help entrepreneurs to succeed.

Now let's take the second case: maybe it's all nurture, so that we can teach people to be entrepreneurs. The logical conclusion of that assumption would be the same teaching topics as with the previous assumption, but, I suppose, with more hope of having an influence. Does that make sense? Do you agree?

And then there's the third case, in which entrepreneurship is a mix of nature and nurture, in varying degrees, depending on the specifics. I think you guess my suggestion: that in that case, too, we teach people about entrepreneurship process and business management because that helps them succeed.

My conclusion is that we should get on with our teaching, and make sure we're giving the people who want it more knowledge about starting and running a business.

Read Tim Berry's blog at

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