The traditional career path is an anachronism. Statistics show 40 to 50 percent of students entering college in 2016 will be self-employed or will freelance at some point in their careers, according to a study commissioned by Intuit. The economy, students’ desires and the world’s expectations of students are all very different than what I faced when I graduated college.
I went to work for IBM, one of the largest companies in the world. I fully expected to stay there my entire career. The global economy, technology and social changes have all served to alter the traditional contract between an employer and employee, and no graduate today has expectations of decades-long employment at one company. Five years later I resigned to complete my MBA in Australia, and upon my return, I started my first business — a barbecue sauce company.
Americans revere the entrepreneurial spirit. We celebrate innovators like Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg who have, as Steve Jobs said, “put a dent in the universe.” And through their great wealth, they are also able to profoundly affect society by funding the development of treatments for diseases, as Gates does, and tackling social issues such as inner-city education, as Zuckerberg has. Millennials as a group want to have impact, want to pursue their passions and want to be innovators.
There is no better way to prepare students for the world of the 21st century, whether they aspire to work for a large company, start their own business, go into academia or devote themselves to public service than through cultivating their skills in entrepreneurship.
When we teach entrepreneurship, the emphasis is on developing skills, not starting businesses. Of course we support and encourage those students who are passionate about launching the next Facebook, and there are many resources at MSU to help them. Rather the goal is about developing the inter-disciplinary skills that lead to the development of an “entrepreneurial mindset.”
The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship defines the entrepreneurial mindset as the set of attitudes, skills and behaviors that students need to succeed academically, personally and professionally. These include: initiative and self-direction, risk-taking, flexibility and adaptability, creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving. Other definitions include the ability to see opportunities, marshal resources and create value.
To me the term embodies a set of cross-functional life and professional skills that describe someone who is innovative, resourceful and creates value. The entrepreneurial mindset can be applied in many contexts. It applies to employees in large, hierarchical entities, and it applies to community organizers, academics, inventors, doctors, lawyers, politicians, musicians and public servants. In no way is it unique to startup companies, and the skills that are developed are relevant to everyone.
Our premise is that learning the entrepreneurial mindset is a critically valuable 21st century skill. Those who learn it well will have outsized success in their careers — no matter what they choose to do — because by definition they become resourceful and adaptable.
Innovation, a topic that is relevant to every industry, occurs at the intersection of disciplines. Entrepreneurship synthesizes information from across academic specialties and demands that practitioners work with a wide variety of people from different callings. The development of entrepreneurship skills is entirely consistent with the T-Shaped learning model. The entrepreneurial mindset, which incorporates the refinement of valuable professional and life skills, is the horizontal bar on the T.
The skills apply equally to students who want to develop for-profit companies or not-for-profits (or social ventures) or work inside established organizations. And the irony is that traditional employers are telling us that they value these skills in candidates who are applying for jobs that might otherwise appear to not be entrepreneurial. Employers recognize that the innovative spirit, agility, resourcefulness and self-awareness that our students possess are valued in the marketplace.
Just in the last few weeks since MSU’s new Minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation became available, we have had students, in addition to business majors, from computer science, journalism, economics, advertising and chemical engineering sign up, just to name a few. The programs are designed to be inclusive and are open to any undergraduate in any major enrolled in any college.
Entrepreneurism must be practiced to be learned. It is experiential. Just as you can’t learn to swim at the library, you can’t learn what entrepreneurship is about unless you have experienced it. We are putting programs in place now to add an experiential dimension to our entrepreneurship and innovation curriculum.
And for those students who aspire to start their own business, there is no better time to do it than while they are in college since the cost of doing so goes up an order of magnitude the minute they lose their full-time student status. On campus students have access to facilities (like our ideation center, The Hive), an incubator (The Hatch), mentors, support and funding.
When one talks to young alumni who have started businesses, as I have done a lot, you consistently hear that even if their business failed, they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. There’s nothing quite like the personal growth that comes from building a business or pursuing one’s passion (which could be to make a movie, produce music, start a news site or launch a new mobile app). I learned the same thing with my barbecue sauce business. Even though the business never flourished, I learned enough so that my next company, which made synthetic diamond, was able to raise more than $18 million from public and private sources. And young alumni tell me similar versions of this story over and over.
Building a business is hard and most fail. But that’s not the point. The point is that in the trying, students develop skills that pay handsome dividends long into their careers — decades in my case. The justification is in the experience, not in the outcome.
Neil Kane is MSU’s first director of undergraduate entrepreneurship and innovation.