The Report: Entrepreneurship and leadership skills
As universities are fighting it out to attract students, digital entrepreneurship and leadership skills are taking the spotlight. But do we really need more digital entrepreneurs? Charley Rogers investigates...
What’s the issue?
SurreyIDEA has launched a new digital entrepreneurial workshop scheme for 15–17-year-olds that aims to boost participation in higher education.
There are a number of questions here. One – can we even teach people to be entrepreneurs? Two – do we really need more entrepreneurs? Three – should we be encouraging more young people to go to university, when there are questions around its efficacy, especially within the tech industry?
- SurreyIDEA at the University of Surrey has launched digital entrepreneurship courses for 15–17-year-olds.
- “We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” – Susan Cain, Quiet
- Only 64% of Brits surveyed in 2014 for a Global Entrepreneurship Report said they thought entrepreneurs could be taught, rather than born.
- “What we cannot do is simply rely on programs [sic] to teach these skills without evaluating them; we need to put their feet to the fire with rigorous research to build evidence on what works and what does not.” – Dr Thomas Gold, Acceleration Group
- “We’re not selling this programme as a programme for everyone – we would never say that everyone could be an entrepreneur.” – Andy Adcroft, SurreyIDEA
- “We believe that in the future everyone will need to have the ability to embrace a number of career paths and the flexibility and resilience an entrepreneurial mindset engenders will be a real asset in this world.” – Elizabeth Tweedale, Cypher
- “We want to attract students who get the whole package of being an entrepreneur, the idea, resilience and hard work, rather than ones who just pick up on how sexy and exciting it would be to make a pitch in front of some angel investors.” – Andy Adcroft, SurreyIDEA
So, can we teach people to be entrepreneurs, or are those that are successful just born with some mysterious ‘X factor’? Dr Thomas Gold, research director at the Acceleration Group, thinks it can be taught. Forbes reported that Gold’s entrepreneurial mindset index (EMI) “measured six of the eight important components of the entrepreneurial mindset. They are communication and collaboration, creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving, future orientation, opportunity recognition, and comfort with risk.”
The education system needs to adapt to focus on these skills, Gold told Forbes: “We need to shift our education policies so that they build on or at least match what we are learning about how to teach these hard-to-measure skills and characteristics.”
However, Gold added, an essential element of teaching these skills is ensuring they are monitored and evaluated: “What we cannot do is simply rely on programs [sic] to teach these skills without evaluating them; we need to put their feet to the fire with rigorous research to build evidence on what works and what does not.”
A Global Entrepreneurship Report, published by marketing company Amway in 2014, identified education as the most crucial component to becoming an entrepreneur. However, the report also found that the view on whether entrepreneurs could be taught, or only born, varied by country: only 64% of Brits surveyed said they thought entrepreneurs could be taught, with China coming out at the top of the scale with 83% believing in entrepreneurship being teachable, and Japan at the bottom, with only 40% agreeing.
Why do we need more digital entrepreneurs?
When it comes to an effective labour force, it seems logical that a careful balance of leaders, or entrepreneurs, and followers are required. So why are we encouraging so many more people to develop their entrepreneurial and leadership skills within society’s narrow definitions of these roles?
Susan Cain makes an interesting point in her book Quiet, that our society largely labels extroverts/leaders as good, and introverts/followers as bad. Cain says: “Today, we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable.” Admittedly, Cain says, there are such things as introverted leaders and extroverted followers, but as a general rule, the view is that to be successful, we must be risk-taking, outgoing and focused on action: “We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.
“The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socialises in groups. We like to think we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there’.”
We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.
– Susan Cain, Quiet
So why is the education system, and industry, still encouraging this development? Elizabeth Tweedale, CEO and founder of edtech company Cypher, says that it’s about flexibility: “We believe that in the future everyone will need to have the ability to embrace a number of career paths and the flexibility and resilience an entrepreneurial mindset engenders will be a real asset in this world.”
For Rachid Hourizi, director of the Institute of Coding (IoC), teaching these skills is about widening access to the tech and digital sectors: “It is important for young people, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, to know that they have access to entrepreneurial or leadership roles,” Hourizi says. “Although it may not be possible to have an entire workforce of entrepreneurs and leaders,” he adds, “it’s certainly a priority to empower young people and show them that these roles are achievable.”
The OECD’s Entrepreneurship in Education report from 2015 also lays out the difference between entrepreneurship and enterprise: “The two most frequent terms used in this field are enterprise education and entrepreneurship education,” the report says.
“The term enterprise education is primarily used in the United Kingdom, and has been defined as focusing more broadly on personal development, mindset, skills and abilities, whereas the term entrepreneurship education has been defined to focus more on the specific context of setting up a venture and becoming self-employed (QAA, 2012, Mahieu, 2006).”
Andy Adcroft, founder of SurreyIDEA, says that Surrey University has chosen the term ‘enterprise’ for their undergraduate programmes to ensure that they don’t get pooled in with the “overuse of ‘entrepreneur’ as a word”. He says: “We’ve long debated whether the ‘e’ in SurreyIDEA is for enterprise or entrepreneurship, and we came down on the side of enterprise. Part of it is because of the overuse of ‘entrepreneur’ as a word, that it’s just becoming something that gets bandied around all the time.”
Entrepreneurship and the economy
But entrepreneurship is also a term that gains attention in HE. The consideration of economic development is key in discussions around the ‘skills gap’ and the need to develop more digital entrepreneurs. And addressing the concerns of industry and producing the kinds of graduates they want to employ is more important than ever for universities wanting to stay competitive, says Adcroft: “Universities come under more and more pressure to justify their existence, if you like, and they have to spend more time explaining why the £9,000-a-year investment students make is worthwhile.
If we’re not creating employable graduates, then that’s going to be a really difficult sale for universities to make.”
However, entrepreneurship programmes are not for everybody, Adcroft emphasises: “We’re not selling this programme as a programme for everyone – we would never say that everyone could be an entrepreneur.” It is rather for a very specific kind of student that is already keen on pursuing this path. Educators also need to be aware of the current trend for entrepreneurship, and be sure to make sure students understand the reality of the job, says Adcroft: “One of the things we really want to instil in young people, even before they come into our programme, is that entrepreneurship is sexy at the moment.
“People watch Dragon’s Den, for example, and they see the pitch that the entrepreneur has made, but that’s the tip of the sword. They don’t see the 60 or 70 hours a week that the entrepreneur has worked to get to the point where they’re able to make that pitch.”
People watch Dragon’s Den, for example, and they see the pitch that the entrepreneur has made, but that’s the tip of the sword. They don’t see the 60 or 70 hours a week that the entrepreneur has worked to get to the point where they’re able to make that pitch.
– Andy Adcroft, SurreyIDEA
Teaching entrepreneurship and leadership then doesn’t necessarily have to be about creating graduates to go into these specific roles, but preparing learners for an increasingly competitive and fast-moving digital world. Tweedale says: “The concepts
of entrepreneurship and leadership are a great motivating ‘wrapper’ for engaging young people with learning skills that will take them into the future – flexibility, problem solving, creativity, failing and trying again, and making decisions with limited information and resources.”
But educators need to be aware of the specifics of what they’re trying to achieve with these courses, warns Adcroft: “I think the danger with a university talking about entrepreneurship – and we have this problem here [at Surrey University] – is pinning down whether you’re talking about creating entrepreneurs, or are you talking about studying entrepreneurs?” Indecision around what you want your course to do means that there are many “blegh” programmes that sit somewhere in the middle, says Adcroft. With SurreyIDEA, programme applicants are vetted and must prove that they are able and willing to pursue entrepreneurship and all the hard work it entails. Adcroft says: “We want to attract students who get the whole package of being an entrepreneur, the idea, resilience, and hard work, rather than ones who just pick up on how sexy and exciting it would be to make a pitch in front of some angel investors.”
This is largely about economic and industrial development, then, as well as encouraging typically ‘extrovert’ characteristics such as confidence in teams, resilience to failure, and risk-taking in the face of uncertainty. Whether or not you agree with our culture’s current focus on entrepreneurial ideals, it’s hard to deny the essential roles that universities are playing in developing them.