Is Education the Real Beneficiary of an Entrepreneurial Economy?

By Jonathan Ortmans

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn,” said futurist Alvin Toffler. Are policymakers focused on building entrepreneurial economies in the name of jobs, or is it really a cunning worker training strategy as we start to equip all our young to be familiar with the dynamics of opportunity recognition, the educational value of “failure” and the magic of iterative testing and validation that underpins modern day entrepreneurial endeavors?


Last week I joined a wide spectrum of global thinkers from Korea to Israel to California at the European House Ambrosetti in Milan for a discussion on entrepreneurship education. Stefano Firpo, a tireless advocate for startups from the Italian Ministry of Economic Development was present. I was also impressed to learn that his fellow Italian startup policy guru, Alessandro Fusacchia is now Head of Cabinet of the Ministry of Education, University and Research. Alessandro’s career move had me thinking.

Young people today face more competition than ever: porous borders, growing incomes and ever improving technologies that have reduced the average lifetime of products and services. As a result, there is an intense on-going debate in education circles as to whether we are even close to properly equipping new generations for an intensely different definition of work.

No one can dispute that these are exciting times for entrepreneurship education programs. While most leaders and policymakers around the world have been promoting entrepreneurship as this author does in the name of jobs and economic growth, they are also starting to appreciate its value as a means of building a smart workforce that has more initiative and ingenuity. Even if 70 percent of startups fail, the experience and skills those nascent co-founders gain in the process of trying makes them highly desirable to existing employers anxious to hire talent that helps existing firms remain dynamic.

Supported by data pointing to the fact that people with STEM backgrounds are at the forefront of innovative activity, more policymakers appear to want to foster an entrepreneurial mindset that teaches opportunity recognition, collaborative team work, pushing the envelope and risk mitigation. These and other invaluable skills raise productivity in an ever rapidly changing world – regardless of whether the person takes the entrepreneurial plunge or not.

The Dutch government’s Startup Delta initiative, for example, led by Special Envoy for startups Neelie Kroes, articulates the following actions:

  • Making coding part of the curriculum of all primary schools;
  • Developing a ‘Code pact’ in which corporates contribute to coding in the curriculum of primary schools;
  • Launching ‘entrepreneurship’ as part of professional and academic education; and
  • Contributing to a culture in which failure is an asset.

The Dutch are not alone. Entrepreneurship education has been effectively legitimized and elevated in the minds of even purist educators who used to dismiss it as merely “business school type skills”. And we are well past the era where the dominant question was whether entrepreneurship could be taught at all. The question now is how to educate more effectively for an entrepreneurial economy – a question that inherently challenges the very education models that were built for an era where large corporations were thought to be the main source of jobs. As the OECD has pointed out to its members, business innovation has become increasingly open and collaborative, as opposed to the traditional ‘closed’ in-house innovation model of the R&D labs of large corporations.

As such policy actions have evolved. We began from a base of finding new methodologies for teaching coding and creativity, to much bigger questions around how to increase what Kauffman Director for Entrepreneurship Wendy Torrance differentiates as the ‘know-how’ vs. ‘know-what’ vs. ‘know-who’ of new business creation. As this blog has reported, we have seen an explosion of entrepreneurship programs but still no clear methods for determining which of these are really effective. There is, thus, a dire need for more sophisticated work around what works and what does not in supporting potential entrepreneurs to become independent and scale – whether through policy or educational programs. And we are even further away from measuring the impact on our economy of graduating individuals who are now better equipped to support those who actually become entrepreneurs.

The good news is that those developing and scaling education programs – whether in terms of in-person instruction, online courses, or through peer cohorts and experiential learning – seem energized and rarely shy away from critical analysis that improves outcomes – even if that means putting their current models out of business. Unlike the bureaucratic malaise that critics lament in our nation’s overall education system, even entrenched heavyweights of entrepreneurship training programs are anxious for data and analysis of program performance. They are also open to intellectual direction around disciplining their own initiatives as they start to apply the same iterative testing models they teach to nascent startup founders.

However, we can only claim victory in entrepreneurship education when entrepreneurial talent seeps into every sector and, most importantly, becomes a lifelong learning process. Despite the differences in approach and goals, the product of entrepreneurial education is that set of beliefs, attitudes and behavior that we call ‘the entrepreneurial mindset’. An effective entrepreneurship education system changes the mindsets of students, teachers, families, society and institutions towards entrepreneurship.

Of course, there is no silver bullet to groom and produce this optimal result and despite optimism about the state of mind of the entrepreneurship education community, there are still multiple roadblocks to unleashing the power of entrepreneurial thinking into society for policymakers to work on including:

a) Systemic barriers to innovating in education such as federal education regulations, state and local policies, contracts, etc.

b) A lack of improvement incentives to diffuse successful innovation in education approaches and tools, and

c) The persistent myth that entrepreneurship education relies solely on technology.



Date: 06/18/2015