Teaching Entrepreneurship Means Teaching Uncertainty
(Oct 26, 2021) — By Birton Cowden
Research Director, Robin and Doug Shore Entrepreneurship Center at the Michael J. Coles College of Business
Popular belief is that teaching students to be entrepreneurs means providing them with an introduction to business, (i.e. the parts of a business, how to calculate a break-even, etc.). While those topics are definitely important, teaching those alone assumes that the students’ ideas are feasible/viable and that getting started is a simple algorithm.
In reality, what entrepreneurship educators like me actually teach are the processes and skillsets needed for students to start something new in the face of uncertainty so that they can get to day 1. We largely focus on what needs to happen during the 6-18 months before launch. Everyone is aware of the statistics describing the high failure rate of new businesses. Our drive is to reduce this trend and give our students a higher than normal chance to not only start a business, but thrive well past five years.
How we do this
While we would love to remove all uncertainty and minimize risk when starting a business, we all know that nothing in life works that way. One of the many lessons from a global pandemic is that we operate in a world of uncertainty. This has left a lot of businesses flat-footed, as they were not prepared to be agile or to ask if they might need to adapt their business model.
Instead of ignoring uncertainty, we teach students how to navigate uncertainty to produce something of value. After all, entrepreneurship is all about creating new value. It’s one thing to tell someone that they need to prepare to make decisions under high uncertainty, but another to know what it feels like to actually do it. Because of this, our courses are highly experiential, meaning our students engage with real projects and learn as they go through the process. We want them leaving our program not only having an entrepreneurial skillset, but also knowing what it feels like to start something from scratch.
Why this matters to employers
While the stretch goal is for students to gain the skills to create new ventures and work for themselves (and maybe hire their own employees), the vast majority of entrepreneurship students will instead enter the workforce. If you are an employer, this is good news for you.
We have success stories over the past few years of students quickly rising in the ranks in their companies because they are self-starters and know how to navigate uncertainty. As we enter the post-COVID-19 world, along with an increased infusion of new technology and customer demands, businesses may find that they want entrepreneurship graduates on their rosters.
Birton Cowden is the first-ever research director for the Michael J. Coles College of Business's Robin and Doug Shore Entrepreneurship Center and an assistant professor in the Michael A. Leven School of Management, Entrepreneurship, and Hospitality. He is also co-founder of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at University of Massachusetts Amherst.