What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘entrepreneurship’? Scrappy start-ups turned Silicon Valley unicorns? Wealthy one-offs like Mark Zuckerberg or Richard Branson? Or even a Gen Z tech whiz making millions from their bedroom? Whatever you think of, it probably relates to growing a business and making money. But what if we told you that the skills of an entrepreneur are just what higher education institutions need to be focused on, right across the learning environments? This is not because we believe everyone deep down wants to run off and start their own business, but because those skills are just what they need to cope with the ever-changing nature of our modern working world.
Using a narrow definition of an entrepreneur, you can see why there is a tension between entrepreneurship and education. Entrepreneurship is about business, money and creating commercial value, which is somewhat at odds with the wider sense of what “value” is in impact-driven education institutions. Perhaps, however, we need to re-examine our definition.
In a report published way back in 2008, the European Commission highlighted that higher education institutions should be doing more to encourage entrepreneurship across all areas of learning. This report defined entrepreneurship simply as ‘an individual’s ability to turn ideas into action’, a mindset that so many educators have been shouting about ever since (and well before!) 2008. By learning here, we are talking equally about the chemistry student who needs to learn how to pitch their research project to a potential funder, as much as we are talking about the marketing professional who could use design thinking techniques to figure out how to improve the student engagement journey.
Thinking about entrepreneurship as a way of working and learning, rather than simply a way to build wealth, means applying entrepreneurial skills to other aspects of our lives. Younger generations are the most traditionally entrepreneurial yet, with 62% of Gen Z having already started or intending to start their own business. They are primed to transfer these skills and ambitions to other areas of their lives, and higher education institutions are perfectly positioned to help them with this. In terms of staff retention, new employees who realize they are being supported to develop such valuable life skills, will be more likely to stick around, don’t you agree?
So we have perhaps put the cart before the horse a bit in not examining what these skills actually are in the first section, but if you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll have rolled with that less than linear approach because that’s how life can be sometimes. So let’s get to it.
According to the OECD, the ‘practice of entrepreneurship holds a great deal of promise for navigating the chaos, complexity, and disruptions’ of life in 2023 - and beyond. So what are some of the key skills that universities should be looking to instill in their staff and students through an entrepreneurial approach?
Millennials and Gen Z are set on having greater flexibility and autonomy when it comes to their working lives. With flexibility comes freedom, but also greater instability and other challenges. Leaning into uncertainty, having the space to experiment and even make mistakes is paramount if we want our community to embrace a more entrepreneurial approach to their learning and professional development. Universities should support us to deal with challenge positively, to see it not as a judgement on our wider capabilities but as an opportunity to learn from both failures and success.
Great communication skills are another key aspect of entrepreneurship, and both staff and students should have the chance to flex their storytelling muscles in lots of different ways. From leading small working groups, to presenting online and in person, to sharing their experiences with others both online and offline, there are many opportunities for our community to develop their communication skills. Entrepreneurship is often about getting into the mindset of the person who is listening and creating empathy-based narratives that connect. In a world of education marketing increasingly competing for attention in more creative ways, the humble story remains one of our most enduringly powerful assets.
While entrepreneurship is principally about action and forward motion, having the ability to stop and take stock is also crucial. The skill of self-reflection is another one that higher education institutions can help develop in their staff and students. This could be through self-assessment or peer-to-peer learning sessions, or even encouraging our community to take up a personal journaling practice. However, reflection happens, being able to check in and recognize both your achievements and areas for development is invaluable for learning. Reflective practice is more common in education these days, but does this seem too “out there” for professionals? We don’t think so, and we think that it builds a culture of authentic communication where people have had the chance to step back and think about things before they communicate meaningfully, and get clear about what they want and what they need.
We’ve now thought about just some of the many skills of entrepreneurship that higher education should be fostering in its new staff and students, and of course the existing community too! But what about the ways in which these skills are nurtured? If we’re thinking about new definitions for entrepreneurship, then we should also be thinking about new ways of supporting that learning and development.
This does not suit the lecture, and does not fit into the onboarding material for your new hire in the admissions team. According to the OECD, ‘entrepreneurship cannot be taught - it can only be facilitated.’ In other words, we need to work alongside people, helping them to reflect and develop, making space for them to be wrong and to experience setbacks, and to continuously improve. This approach is at the core of intrapreneurship, where small agile teams can be created within existing departments, focused on innovation, and stepping back to question the way things work and flow. They are typically outside normal chains of communication and hierarchy, and have more fluid role descriptions. That does not happen overnight, but with the right support, it can be built, and it can yield incredible results. Just ask Google, Vimeo and Sony.
Whether staff or student, one critical aspect to developing entrepreneurial skills is to give them greater control over the type of work they do. Self-direction means they are more likely to pursue their own lines of inquiry and do deep thinking on their terms. This also respects neurodiversity as an asset to a team or to a learning environment, and makes space for everyone to be the best versions of themselves.
In a recent framework for student success, published by Advance HE, the role and value of ‘the educator’ when it comes to fostering entrepreneurship in higher education is outlined in three parts: to motivate learners, build collaborative working relationships and, interestingly, make time for their own reflection and iteration. In short, those embracing the entrepreneurial approach must adopt the same attitude themselves.
As we’ve said, these ideas about entrepreneurship and education aren’t new, even if some sectors have taken a while to adopt them. If you’re already implementing some of these ideas, why not tell us all about it? And if you’re ready to take that step into new ways of working with your team, we’d love to help.