Fortune Magazine’s Patricia B. Gray wrote an article, Business Class, asking the age old question: Can you teach entrepreneurship?
I’ve been asked that question ad nauseum since I’ve led an entrepreneur workshop aimed at high school and college students for the past five summers.
Gray frames the question just right:
Courses for wannabe entrepreneurs are a hot trend at American universities. But can risk taking and originality be learned?
Boldness and creativity are, of course, a difficult if not impossible things to teach because they’re a function of character. And if you believe Aristotle, it’s too late to change one’s character by the time you’re in college.
The teaching entrepreneurship question can quickly boil down to semantics. In our workshop we never had the audacity to refer to ourselves as teachers (well, maybe to the press, but never to the participants).
What we did believe is that you can’t teach entrepreneurship in the same way that you can teach a skill, such as accounting. A good teacher should be able to make any student who’s willing to learn capable of practicing at least basic accounting. You can teach someone to be an accountant.
Entrepreneurship is different.
You can certainly learn about entrepreneurship (just listen to Venture Voice). But teaching someone about entrepreneurship doesn’t make them an entrepreneur — because of the prerequisite of character.
Saying you teach people to be entrepreneurs is more akin to claiming to teach people to be philosophers. As one of my old philosophy professors used to say: You can teach philosophy, learn a lot about philosophy, even become a philosophy professor — but that doesn’t make you a philosopher (in fact he claimed that there was a low correlation between philosophy professors and philosophers). Being a philosopher requires intellectual independence and curiosity that doesn’t come from being taught.
Can you learn about entrepreneurship? Of course. But that doesn’t make you an entrepreneur.
So what are we doing providing information about entrepreneurship? We’re not interested in teaching it so people can be knowledgeable about entrepreneurship. Knowledge isn’t good enough. No entrepreneur ever made a buck just because she knew the history of entrepreneurship. While we can’t make ordinary people into entrepreneurs, we can make entrepreneurs wiser by sharing war stories and helping each other work through challenges.