Can you teach entrepreneurship

Being a successful entrepreneur requires some particular skills. Many programs exist to teach entrepenuership in schools, in community organizations and in entrepreneurial support groups, but debate continues over whether entrepreneurship can really be taught. Are you born an entrepreneur, or can you learn to become one?
Marc Nathan and Becky McCray
Marc Nathan (formerly of the Houston Technology Center) and I discussed this at SXSW. Marc is passionate about supporting entrepreneurs and building entrepreneurial communities. He said you really can’t teach people to be entrepreneurs. In particular, you can’t teach the risk assessment and risk taking. (I love getting to talk with Marc, because he never ceases to challenge my thinking.)

Later the same day, I attended a panel discussion on How to Teach Entrepreneurialism Globally. The panelists were James Barlow, Douglas Richard, Richard Titus, and Sharon Vosmek.

The panelists were mostly in the business of teaching entrepreneurship, so it’s not surprising that they said that it is teachable. Oddly, they all also agreed that some parts of entrepreneurism cannot be taught.

What parts can you teach, and what can you not?

How to Teach Entrepreneurialism GloballyBarlow says you can create an environment where people can discover their entrepreneurialism. Then it is a matter of how we provide the tools to give them the best possible chance.

Titus says you can teach some of the core skills, but other internal drivers also play a role. Many of our best entrepreneurs have the same set of drivers that make them a rubbish employee, he said.

Vosmek said that where women succeed in high growth entrepreneurship, it was not the local culture that supported it. It was access to a global network.

One panelist (missed which one said this), said one thing that he looks at is their failure, because he wants to see that they are learning from it. However, in many countries, failure is catastrophic. A single business failure can destroy a person’s reputation and their finances permanently.

An audience member drew a parallel with his toddler who refuses to try certain foods and with brilliant technical people who refuse to try being entrepreneurial. Can you teach someone to try? Titus said that while you don’t have to be born an entrepreneur, some people are born not to be entrepreneurs. Some people are simply wired against it.

Barlow said that environment is also important. Extending the parallel with toddlers, Barlow said his toddler refuses to try milk at home, but readily drinks it at day care, where everyone is doing the same. He thinks that by putting people in an environment of entrepreneurialism, you can encourage them to try becoming an entrepreneur.

Vosmek said that generally, women hold themselves back as entrepreneurs because they assess their prior experience differently. They tend to discount their experience more readily than men do, thinking that it is not relevant to their entrepreneurial ideas. As a solution to that, she said that women need exposure to the opportunity, a chance to see what is part of the opportunity, and then they can assess their ability to deliver on that opportunity.

Teaching others to make entrepreneurs

Teaching angel investors and potential venture capitalists how to invest is one of the most important things you can do to promote entrepreneurship in Europe, the panel said.

I think this is highly relevant to small towns in the US as well as world wide. If your city or region is founding angel groups and venture capital funds, they can improve their chance of success by providing more training and information to those investors first.

Photo of Marc Nathan and Becky McCray taken by Wesley Faulkner.
Photo of Teaching Entrepreneurialism Globally panel by Becky McCray.

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About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

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  1. says

    This is certainly a complicated and controversial subject, but as someone who teaches people how to become joyfully jobless, I lean towards believing that it is my challenge to inspire people to discover their passion, give them tools to put that passion to work for them, and remind them that the biggest reward of being an entrepreneur is that it gives you an excuse to be a lifelong learner.

  2. says

    I think you can definitely teach certain aspects of entrepreneurialism. For example, I think a lot of people have skewed views about the risks involved in owning your own business, and many also have no idea what is involved (may I paraphrase a good friend of mine who said: “Yes, you have to do f–king EVERYTHING”).

    To me, this is a no brainer. People should be exposed to all the options so they can decide what’s right for them.

  3. says

    Barbara, that is a great plan: inspire people, give them tools, and remind them of rewards.

    Andy, I agree. Helping people see the options clearly is an important point.

  4. says

    To assume that you can’t teach different personality types to be entrepreneurs is to assume that every business requires the same values, skills and character traits. Some entrepreneurs are “do-it” people, some “delegate-it”, some are idea machines and others are better at exectution. “True, there are people who are not natural entrepreneurs but if someone really wants to run a 10k, they don’t have to be a natural athlete, do they? They may not come in first place, but they can finish successfully with proper training, inspiration, coaching and determination. Likewise, a person inspired to be self employed may have to train harder and study more, may not grow the largest business with the highest revenues but they can still be taught make a living without a job.

  5. says

    Great post -interesting insight on the different types of entrepreneurs and the role environment plays. At the Acton School of Business, we obviously think entrepreneurship can be taught (since our program exclusively focuses on entrepreneurship)….but we also don’t think there’s a one size fits all solution; you should determine what kind of entrepreneur you are and play to those strengths. For more on this, check out our self-assessment to find out what kind of entrepreneur you are, and our blog, which has a great discussion on whether entrepreneurship is born or bred. and