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4 ways college entrepreneurship classes fall short

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According to a Bentley University Survey, over 66 percent of millennials would like to start a company.

It’s no wonder that colleges, universities, and private institutions are trying to ride the wave and offer entrepreneurship training classes, programs, and even degrees. In a recent feature in Forbes by Andrew Yang, the amount of Entrepreneurship Education and Training Programs (EETs) has quadrupled over the past 25 years, and yet, rates of private business ownership for households under 30 have declined over 60 percent during the same period.

If millennials are so interested in starting companies, and if more training opportunities exist today than ever before, why aren’t we seeing an increase in millennial-startups?

I’m no stranger to EET programs myself. When I was in college studying engineering, I stumbled into a startup company by accident. Since I was a student, I had a student mindset. I was studying engineering, so I assumed (and was told by my professors) that I should take an entrepreneurship class and perhaps pick up a business minor. Looking to do entrepreneurship “right” (and quite frankly, not knowing any better) I opted to do both, spending 7 years working on a startup that ultimately failed.

For many college students in the Heartland who haven’t grown up in startup-dense Silicon Valley, EET classes might be the best option to get started. Here’s  how to structure them the right way – from a student founder’s perspective

Don’t teach a formula

As I found out the hard way, just because you get an “A” in an entrepreneurship class does not mean your startup will be successful. This is the first danger of entrepreneurship classes – putting students in the mindset that success in the classroom implies success in the real world. Entrepreneurship is more of an art than a science – assuming all startups should follow the same path is a mistake. If we want to teach entrepreneurship, the first step in getting it right is to stop teaching that there is a fixed path for success and tying grades to business plans and pitch decks. Entrepreneurship classes should focus grades on the student’s ability to prove viability of a business model, and if they find they’re on the wrong path they should be rewarded for doing so. Giving an “A” to a student who discovered there is no market for their product is better than giving an “A” to student who did no real market research but wrote a great business plan.

Spend time the right way

A quick “back of the napkin” estimate tell me that I spent well over 1,000 hours in EET classes (not counting homework assignments). That 1,000 hours I could have been calling on customers, working on testing the market, or selling product. The issue wasn’t so much the fact that I spent time in classes, but rather how the time was spent. Time in EET classes should be spent taking action, not sitting through lectures. Homework assignments should be testing theories and calling on customers, not agonizing over business plans or making the perfect pitch deck.

Tell students when their ideas are crap

All good intensions aside, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that any college would love to see their students win regional pitch competitions and make the local news with their companies. Because of this, colleges often push students to start companies event if the ideas aren’t good. In college, my startup was widely celebrated – I was told we were doing everything right. But once I got out in the “real” world and started talking to entrepreneurs, I had my business model torn apart. This was a rude awakening for me and a shock. Not only is this overly-positive encouragement of student entrepreneurs an inhibitor to learning,  but if the student is really serious about starting a company, they should be told as soon as possible if they’re wasting their time on an idea.  If colleges want to help student entrepreneurs, they need to get better at killing a startup when it doesn’t have legs.

Startups aren’t class projects

When I was in my EET classes, I quickly lost site of why I was starting a company in the first place. In fact, I literally started a company for what a real entrepreneur would argue are all the wrong reasons. I was just trying to win a student pitch competition. I never had the drive I should have with my startup because the startup was presented to me as though it was a class project. Over the years I’ve learned that the most successful entrepreneurs have a true thirst, drive, need and passion for their companies and products. If we want to teach entrepreneurship, we should be focused on encapsulating the passion and focusing on the need rather than presenting a startup as a fun project.  This is serious business!

Final thoughts: the best way to help is to get out of the way

When you’re a child learning how to walk, you do so by stumbling a few times, falling over, getting back up, and trying again. If somebody was always holding your hand, you might never learn how to walk. Entrepreneurship is of the same vein. From my experience, the best way to learn how to be an entrepreneur is to be an entrepreneur. While it’s great to learn from others, when you read literature from other successful entrepreneurs, most put a strong emphasize the importance of going out and just starting something.

So what is the solution to entrepreneurship education? Creating an environment where students have the ability to try to stand, stumble, fall, and get back up again, on their own. To give them an environment where they can feel the pressure of really starting something, and to learn by doing. All is not lost – some organizations are starting to capitalize on this idea. The Dorm Room Fund, which invests $2 million a year in student-run ventures, serves as an example of method that could work. They don’t offer a formal training program, but instead they offer funding and let the students learn on their own.

Think about this way – if a startup really has potential, perhaps the best advice to give students is to drop out of school and pursue the idea. There are countless examples (Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Bill Gates not the least of these) that show this is the case. While it’s a stretch to say that one day we’ll see schools encouraging their students to drop out to pursue a startup, it’s certainly something to shoot for.

Courtney Gras co-founded a clean energy startup company while studying electrical engineering at the University of Akron. After spending 7 years with her startup and being named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 for her work with the company, she decided to pivot her career and follow her passion for encouraging others to pursue entrepreneurial paths by taking action. She currently works as the executive director for Launch League, where she educates and connects founders in Northeastern Ohio. 

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