That was the topic of The Future of Entrepreneurship Education Summit, held last week at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and organized by Michael Simmons, Sheena Lindahl, and Arel Moodie of Extreme Entrepreneurship Tour. We heard from government, not-for-profit organizations, and entrepreneurs both young and seasoned, and the most important and prevalent theme, from my perspective, was that we should be helping young, aspiring entrepreneurs start businesses, not teaching them how to write business plans.
The conference started with a keynote by Jeff Hoffman, the founder of Priceline, who talked about his student days at Yale, where he started a custom software development business, surreptitiously, to finance his tuition payments. When the university discovered that he was running his company out of an empty, leaky basement on campus, he was threatened with expulsion. But after he made an impassioned plea to Bart Giamatti, who was then president of Yale, the forward thinking president had Hoffman's office moved out of the crummy basement into proper offices at Yale. And the university ultimately became one of his biggest customers. Giamatti's support -- and his willingness to bend the rules – helped launch Hoffman on his entrepreneurial path.
When serial entrepreneur Doug Mellinger, took the stage, he declared, 'the only mission for an entrepreneurship education program is to graduate entrepreneurs. Most programs are too academic, and not practical enough, and we're starting these programs too late. We need to start in freshman and sophomore year not in grad school. Put the entrepreneur and the student first,' he recommended to the academics in the room. 'Make your programs surrounding them, not your research agendas.' Mellinger recently bough Cogswell College in Sunnyvale, CA, and plans to transform it into an innovative entrepreneurship college with his partner, Trish Costello, who ran the Entrepreneurship Center at Babson College.
But the best part of the day for me was moderating a panel of young entrepreneurs, who told the audience what they think entrepreneurship education should look like. Ryan Allis at iContact cautioned against 'analysis paralysis;' Chris McCann at StartUp Digest talked about the need for education that was tactical as opposed to inspirational; Trevor Owens of Lean Startup Machine made the case for 'momentum, mentors, and teammates' as the secret sauce for young entrepreneurs; Caryn Shick, the founder of Incubate, said that young entrepreneurs should be given access to experts and resources, and then 'set loose'; and Inc.com's own Scott Gerber said he wanted to see entrepreneurship education at the K-12 level, and encouraged his peers to think less about tech and more about starting 'simple service businesses.' Both Ankur Jain, the founder of Kairos Society, and Travis Kiefer of Gumball Capital talked about the importance of social mission. 'We need to create a culture of entrepreneurship as a means of solving problems,' said Jain. 'And we need to take it global.' And Kiefer, whose organization promotes the creation of college campus businesses with social missions, talked about the importance of dispelling three myths about business creation: you need a brilliant idea; a perfect plan guarantees success; and failure is devastating.
So the message was pretty clear to higher education: if you have entrepreneurs in your midst, you have two choices: you can help them launch and grow their companies by giving them access to the resources they need, including mentors, or you can watch them pack their bags. They're an impatient, demanding bunch with little tolerance for irrelevant information. I'm betting that sounds familiar to most successful entrepreneurs.
DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
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