Entrepreneurship: Taught or learned?

The Department of Higher Education and Training wants to develop an entrepreneurship ecosystem in higher education institutions as a means to kickstart the country’s flagging economy. This includes designating a Student Entrepreneurship Week on campuses across the country. But as UCT celebrates student entrepreneurship on its campus this week, Martin Hall asks: can a university aspire to teach a person to be an entrepreneur?

CAN entrepreneurship be taught? Given the number of universities across the world that offer degrees in the subject, the answer may seem obvious.

But entrepreneurship is a state of mind, a necessary precondition for the acquisition of skills and an appreciation of the value of theory. Is it rather that entrepreneurship is learned? If so, then the university’s role is not to instruct, but rather to create the optimal conditions for learning to happen, bringing together talented and experienced people and providing them with the resources that they need to succeed.

There are many definitions of “entrepreneur”. Here’s a useful one from the Business Dictionary: “someone who exercises initiative by organising a venture to take benefit of an opportunity and, as the decision maker, decides what, how, and how much of a good or service will be produced”. 

This covers businesses, but also a host of other organisational forms, from NGOs to the public sector.

A propensity for initiative, risk, setting clear objectives and driving hard for success can be understood intellectually, and communicated, without being acquired. A person can be an acknowledged expert in entrepreneurship without being in the slightest entrepreneurial.

Indeed, traditional academic tenure is intended to allow freedom of thought and the exploration of ideas in an environment that is free of risk, and which allows for abstract thinking that is not burdened by the practical necessities of specific outcome.

A university can certainly teach about entrepreneurship. But it is far from certain that a university can teach a person to be an entrepreneur.

The purpose of education, though, is not to teach; it is rather to create the conditions in which a person can learn, acquiring the skills and insights that they need to meet their objectives, to become their future selves. In this, and for entrepreneurship, a university has a central role.

One of the best ways of conceptualising how learning happens, particularly in a business school, is still David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, first mapped out in his seminal book, published in 1984.

Kolb's experiential learning theory posits a four-stage cycle of learning: 1) concrete experience; 2) observation of and reflection on that experience; 3) formation of abstract concepts based upon the reflection; and 4) testing the new concepts.

Much of Kolb’s theory is concerned with the learner’s internal cognitive processes. Learning involves the acquisition of abstract concepts that can be applied flexibly in a range of situations. It can begin with any one of the four elements, but typically begins with a concrete experience.

Thus, an aspirant entrepreneur comes to a university with personal experience of some kind; almost anything. Through reflection, particularly with peers and guided through mentorship, self perception is sharpened, related to the requirements of entrepreneurship and aligned with abstract theories that encourage generalisation. 

Then – and crucially – a person dives back into active experimentation, trying and testing what they have learned. Participants are not taught to be an entrepreneur; through their engagements with peers and expertise in the experiential learning cycle, they gain step-wise insights that empower them to realise their ambitions.

Here’s a recent example that demonstrates Kolb’s experiential learning cycle in action. Last week a group of students from a university in the Netherlands, visiting the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) as part of their MBA programme, spent a day working with local, early-stage entrepreneurs at the GSB Solution Space in Philippi.

Among the entrepreneurs present were a fledgling fashion business; a Philippi-based transport company that is on a steep growth curve; and a coffee and internet café that is making waves in Langa. The visiting students brought theoretical knowledge and their own, relevant, experiences. The local entrepreneurs contributed the rich detail of their day-by-day contexts. The GSB team brought expert facilitation and knowledge at both the local and broader scale, setting out clear objectives for the day.

At the end of six hours of intensive work, the local entrepreneurs were able to detail specific and relevant things they had learned, that they would take back to their businesses.

In Kolb’s terms, they had learned from reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation, and were cycling back into active and specific experimentation. The visiting students had also moved on through the experiential learning cycle. Their assumptions about Cape Town and South Africa, acquired through academic sources and abstract conceptualisation, had been mediated by the rich detail of their engagement with local entrepreneurs.

They will, in turn, take these insights into their own entrepreneurial journeys.

I recently came across a mantra that’s been adopted by an organisation set up for new entrepreneurs; “you don’t know what you don’t know”. This could also serve as an epigraph for success in fostering entrepreneurship at a university.

The entrepreneur brings a state of mind; determination, an appetite for risk, a clear sense of purpose. The university brings abstract knowledge, case studies, mentorship and convening power. As an aspirant entrepreneur moves through the experiential learning cycle, they realise they don’t know what they don’t know.

The university is both a gateway to acquiring the knowledge that they do not yet know that they need, and a place for reflection, sharing and engagement. If done right, it becomes a partnership for success.

  • Martin Hall is senior scholar in residence, UCT Graduate School of Business Solution Space.

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