Rethinking Entrepreneurship Education

Silicon Valley is reinventing itself, again. But entrepreneurship educators in academia did not get the notice. This new Silicon Valley builds on the speed of product development. Both software and hardware startups now have access to technology that requires very little startup capital and allows fast prototyping. The Valley exploits the advancement in technology in its typical world-leading fashion: fast and furious. So in just a few years, we have seen the uprising of Lean Startup, a startup movement that focuses on building minimum viable products and fast customer/product feedback loops, Y Combinator, a startup accelerator that uses its expertise and network to quickly launch new businesses, and Andreessen Horowitz, a new venture capital firm that employs its partners’ insights and technology-disseminating ability to get involved in startups at all stages.

The underlying thesis of the latest change in the Valley is to use speed to tackle uncertainty. Startups are inherently uncertain and therefore risky. Traditional venture capitalists deal with the uncertainty by casting a wide net to diversify. One big win makes up for countless losses. The new Valley still diversifies, but new technology can help to further eliminate inefficiency. Venture capitalists and angel investors these days produce a large number of startups by speeding up the product development process. It is alright to fail as long as the startup founders fail and get back on their feet quickly.

On the other hand, entrepreneurship education is stuck in the old mold. A typical entrepreneurship education in college or business school offers an introduction to the startup process, an incubator, internship opportunities, and year-round business plan competitions. Many schools give out certificates or even degrees. The result? An outright F. Exhibit A is the absence of blockbuster startups coming from any certificate/degree program. Those successful founders that have any tie to an entrepreneurship program most likely could have found their way to the Valley regardless.

The problem with the entrepreneurship education is how academia tackles startup uncertainty. Because it is hard to show success, let’s not focus on the measurable outcome. Let’s just emphasis the awareness we create, the community we build and the palpable sense of giving we together feel. So instead of unicorn startups, we have many marketing campaigns and a bunch of social entrepreneurs. 

This is a shame. An entrepreneurial project can be a perfect capstone for a liberal arts education. What produces a better learning outcome than doing a real product that requires extensive knowledge of science and humanities? Entrepreneurship educators should realize that entrepreneurship is not teachable. We are just there to guide the interested students through the startup process and help them connect with resources. An ideal entrepreneurship education should embrace the current changes in the Valley. It only requires a co-working space, a little money to access 3-D printers and cloud computers, a few field experts in residence, and the lean and fast spirit that fosters a learning-by-doing mentality.  As Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, wrote, "Entrepreneurship is something you learn best by doing it.”