Why do we not have more local community leaders, more small businesses, more Steve Jobs', or more visionary politicians? This human capital deficit comes from a failure to provide students an opportunity to learn entrepreneurship and creativity through education. Addressing this shortfall requires letting students gain practical experience as leaders, entrepreneurs, and problem-solvers during their time in school. 

Over the past two months I've interviewed 11 entrepreneurs (read their bios in the blog appendix) to explore the development of their entrepreneurial mindset - creative, courageous, innovative, visionary, and inquisitive. I then took a step further, asking how we could more opportunities for learning entrepreneurship in schools. The words of these entrepreneurs resonate with the work of educators fighting against Common Core standards and standardized testing. Students need freedom to explore their passions, every student could benefit from being exposed to a more proactive and inquisitive entrepreneurial mindset, and our current system of standardization and common standards is harming the development of entrepreneurship and creativity. 

This should read: Get excited and follow your passions.
Photo Source
This research was undertaken to complete a Master's Degree in Education and Development at the University of East Anglia. I'm breaking the entrepreneur's feedback on education into a series of two articles, this one focused on the feedback from the interviewed entrepreneurs, and the second on expanding that feedback to reinvent schools, classrooms, and pedagogy.  

Want to read it all? The full dissertation with citations can be seen here.

Why Learn Entrepreneurship and Creativity? 

I use the term entrepreneurship broadly to describe learning the entrepreneurial mindset, or the characteristics of being creative, courageous, innovative, visionary, and inquisitive. 

The same entrepreneurial mindset that enables individuals to start for-profit businesses can enable them to start social businesses, political movements, or campaigns for rights or services. Learning entrepreneurship is explicitly tied global development, as entrepreneurial leaders are necessary to address issues such as poverty, inequality, political gridlock, and climate change. 

This field of research already has many strong champions. Professor Yong Zhao from the University of Oregon has written extensively on the value of entrepreneurship and creativity in education and was recently featured on OPB's Think Out Loud. Sir Ken Robinson's TED video "How Schools Kill Creativity" has received over 19 million views, and his RSA Animate "Changing Education Paradigms" is an absolute must-see.

The data I gathered in these interviews joins Professor Zhao, Sir Ken, and legions of concerned educators and policy makers in concluding that the current system of Common Core and standardization in the US is harming student entrepreneurship and creativity. By not helping students reach their entrepreneurial and creative potentials, we also harm their ability to start businesses that create jobs and grow the economy, or take action to fight against violence and crime in their communities, or perform countless other societal roles that require creative, courageous, innovative, visionary, and inquisitive leaders. 

Sir Ken Robinson, Education SuperHero

The entrepreneurs' feedback helps outline a radically different education system, one where creativity and entrepreneurship is at the forefront of education and students have the freedom to explore their passions. 

Entrepreneurs in Education - What's Not Working

The entrepreneurs I interviewed had a diverse mix of primary and secondary school experiences. In a pre-interview survey, 7 of 11 participants ranked primary/secondary school as either not important at all or slightly important to their success as an entrepreneur. Non-formal education, e.g., work experience, far outstripped formal education, as 9 of 11 said that it was either very important or extremely important to their success as an entrepreneur. Through the longer qualitative interviews I tried to get more detail on how education could further benefit entrepreneurs, and what role it could play in learning the entrepreneurial mindset.

Quotes from the interviews reflected the survey data, with many questioning the benefit of their formal education.

Richard Patey: (Schooling had) 0% Impact. I had no entrepreneurial drive or foresight until I was about 26.”

Justin Koufopoulos:An education system is in many ways a closed loop. If you aren’t searching for those outside experiences, you won’t be able to get that experience because it isn’t offered in the educational system.

Robert Ashton: (On returning to his old school decades later…) “What has changed in the 40 years since I left this place? They said well, we have new curtains.”

Junaid Kalmadi Every single education system I’ve been in has been debilitating towards creativity and entrepreneurship. I’ve been in the Indian, British, and American system, all of whom have really sucked to push you to be creative and entrepreneurial.”

John KoenigI can’t really look back at any particular class or teacher and say they had a really positive impact in my development, I kind of made my own path.”

The entrepreneurs seemed to be united on one fact; school is not helping people develop an entrepreneurial mindset. Given the rare exception, students are not learning entrepreneurship in schools. So what are they doing? Even with its shortcomings, the entrepreneurs were able to identify parts of the education system that they valued.

Entrepreneurs in Education - What's Working

Junaid Kalmadi: (Speculating about his future kids..) ... I’d have to figure out a way to get them social,social interactions are the reason why schools I think are great. Kids from different backgrounds, different cultures, just different people period… if I could figure that out I’d home-school them”
Kathya Acuña:
A lot of the times I remember finding myself in situations that I didn’t want to be in. Dance related or instrument related, or making presentations in front of the class, just doing a lot of things that when you are little you wish you didn’t have to do and you kind of want to walk away from. And having no option, when you don’t have a way out you are going to fight your way through and make it work.”

Peter Rachor: To me the value of education is partly knowledge set, knowing stuff you are going to need as you build your business and your life, and partly mindset. To me, the mindset piece I sort of acquired somewhat accidentally on my own (6th grade class described below)….The piece that I didn't get any of from school was the skillset.”

Garrett Athman:College is a whole different world… college is the link to real world applications … It becomes more real when you start to think about what you’d actually be doing in the real world to make money, to help other people, to provide a service, especially in engineering… next year I’m designing a medical clinic that’s going to be built in Haiti.”

These four quotes provide quality information about the usefulness of education for most entrepreneurs. Distilling those comments into one statement, to be useful a school must challenge students to move out of their comfort zone and gain knowledge informed by experience, while providing a dynamic social and learning environment.

Space for Entrepreneurship and Creativity - Learning to Discover

Robert Ashton, author of ‘The Entrepreneur's Book of Checklists: 1000 Tips to Help You Start and Grow Your Business’ and many other books on entrepreneurship, envisions the solution to our education deficit as creating space for difference and risk.

"It’s not formal education, it’s informal education. It’s creating space where they can do things…. If you have intelligent people you want to be entrepreneurial you’ve got to give them space to be themselves, allow them to take risks and take risks on them, and not corral them into university classes."

Peter's Classroom

How can we make formal education look more like the non-formal education that Robert describes, and incorporate what's working for entrepreneurs in formal schools? The story of Peter Rachor, Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Portland, provides a powerful example of innovation within the education system. In the 6th grade, Peter was placed in an experimental class called ‘multi-age’. Students from the 4th 5th and 6th grade were placed together into two connected classrooms with two teachers, with the intention that they did a lot of self-directed work. The experience fundamentally altered Peter’s life course.

“I don’t think I would have started those companies without that class. That class ... It was a point in my education where instead of doing what someone else told you to do ... you still have to work really hard and do these reports and presentations, but you could do what you believed in. This is what I try to encourage in the students.”

“In that classroom I was discovering new things, and a lot of them were dark alleys, but I kept discovering more and more and more, and a few of them got to the build stage. Also I learned that that’s actually ok, that’s actually something you can get a grade for, that’s actually something that your parents will praise you for.” 

Explicitly, Peter was receiving a grade and praise from his parents for the explorative work that he did in class. As an added benefit, Peter developed a pattern of thinking and learned that he could do what he believed in. While this model is not generalizable to all students, everyone needs to at least be exposed to the entrepreneurial mindset as a way of thinking. According to Peter, such exposure needs to as early as possible.

To me, we can’t do it early enough (expose students to the entrepreneurial mindset). For kids whose parents aren’t saying you can go do anything as long as it’s actually something you are interested in and there is an outcome. The outcome might only be I know more about baseball, but you get to pursue something that is your passion at an early age, we count that as learning.”

“If you are from a family where the parents are not supportive… and there is not time to be creative and have that be ok, ok with your teacher, ok with your parents, then you don’t ever really learn to discover

Discovering and practicing his passions in the classroom was a key to Peter’s success, and this story provides an example for how to engage students in learning: let them explore their own passions.

I'll expand on Peter's experience and evaluate current models of entrepreneurial education in the US in Part 2 of this Entrepreneurship in Education Series

(COMING SOON) Keep Reading for Entrepreneurship in Education Pt. 2 - Reinventing Schools, Classrooms, and Pedagogy.

And once again,  The full dissertation with citations can be seen here.


Kurt Berning

Hug the Rhino
For a better life

Appendix: Bios of Entrepreneurs

The Interviewees

The four women and seven men represented a diverse group of experienced entrepreneurs from the US and UK, with eight having started 2-4 businesses and an age range from early 20's to late 50's. Hailing from a diverse background of for-profit, non-profit, and social enterprise companies, this sample size of entrepreneurs provides a richness of experience and data.

Richard Patey is an entrepreneur, internet marketer and author of Coffee Shop Entrepreneurs - Wake Up And Smell The Location Independent Economy - who makes money for clients and his own ventures in the ski and snowboard industry.

Rachel McGillis the founder of Sunray7, a company that builds confidence and resilience in leaders. Sunray7 has worked with high-profile companies such as Unilever, Barclays, and BT build clarity, momentum and confidence among its clients.

Elle Hoxworth recently finished a two-year position with Teach for America, and just accepted a position in Chicago as a 3rd grade teacher. Elle founded a fair trade co-op called Shangilia Mama in 2010 to sell goods hand-made by women in Kenya to markets the Northwest of the US. 

Justin Koufopoulos is a US/UK Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Leeds. Currently finishing a MSc by Research in Psychology, Justin has consulted for Start-Up Chile in Santiago, is a NY ’12 StartingBloc Fellow, and is working on ventures in mHealth, or using mobile devices to support public and personal health.

Garrett Athman is a 4th year student at the University of Portland studying Civil Engineering. He’s the director of Pilot Audio and Lighting at the University of Portland, and recently started a Photo Booth Rental venture in Montana. 

Bethany Foran works full time as a civil engineer in Portland, Oregon. Graduating with degrees in Civil Engineering, Theatre, and Philosophy, she has founded a drafting company, an engineering firm, and a renewable energy venture. She also helps manage the operations of Transita, a transportation firm based in Portland. 

Robert Ashton, based in Norwich, UK, has written over 15 books on entrepreneurship, including “How to Be a Social Entrepreneur” and “How to Start Your Own Business for Entrepreneurs”. Robert has campaigned for many social initiates, including the establishment of the Norfolk Community Foundation, which now gives grants of more than £1 million annually. 

Peter Rachor is the Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Portland. Peter has been involved in communications and technology since the 6th grade, and started numerous telecommunications businesses. Peter now serves as a mentor for aspiring entrepreneurs and directs the award-winning Entrepreneur Scholar Program. 

Junaid Kalmadi lives in Chicago where he writes about entrepreneurship and learning. Junaid recently launched a beta app called “Charlie” which updates users with important information on their contacts before any meeting. Junaid has also launched a series of entrepreneur networking and presentation events.

Kathya Acuña is the Operations Administrator at Sparkloft Media. She has done community development work in Kenya with the Foundation for Sustainable Development, and recently founded a non-profit organization with plans to do work in Colombia.

John Koenig is the founder of Measureful, a company that automates the process of data collect and analysis to give customers meaningful information. Originally from Kansas, John has also founded Warmcurrent.org, a charity works with underserved communities through kids surfing programs and charitable donations of recycled wetsuits and surfboards.