Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made? An Experiential Education View
Pat Gareau UA’17 and Jim Stellar
As we wrote in the end of our last blog on place-based thinking in entrepreneurship, unconscious vs. conscious decision-making may play a role in developing or enhancing entrepreneurial thinking. At a behavioral level, we see this as parallel to Daniel Kahneman’s reference to two mental processes in his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow. Now as we face the “born or made” question we wonder how experience changes in these two processes (or their interaction) helps launch and/or develop entrepreneurial skills, particularly in higher education.
But first it is useful to collect a story and for that we turn to Pat’s own experience.
“At Hudson Valley Community College, as the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper, I got my first taste of leading a team toward a common goal with a good deal of freedom in how we operated. That year I became further inspired by entrepreneurial activity as an intern at the Center for Economic Growth in the Albany area, where I was exposed to some of the local business successes. At some point in the following year, I started doing freelance work for a former boss and mentor that had started a new consulting company. I saw an opportunity to continue that work and try and expand by creating a business entity. There weren’t any better ways to accelerate my personal and professional growth on the way out of my undergraduate experience at the University at Albany of which I could think than trying to make a business work. I knew it would force me to think creatively about marketing, as well as be disciplined and self-motivated in providing services. These experiences, combined with an inclination to do things differently and independently that I’ve had since I was young, were responsible for me taking the leap and giving entrepreneurship a shot.”
Note the heavy reliance on experience but the inclination from childhood to do things differently. So, which is it – born or made?
Maybe the way to begin to address that question is to note the following: Jeff Bezos, perhaps the most successful entrepreneur of this century, wrote about unconscious and conscious thinking in his annual letter to Amazon shareholders last month. He wrote about this dichotomic psychological culture he hopes to instill at Amazon in terms of efficiently executing a plan versus wandering. “Sometimes (often actually) in business, you do know where you’re going, and when you do, you can be efficient. Put in place a plan and execute. In contrast, wandering in business is not efficient … but it’s also not random. It’s guided – by hunch, gut, intuition, curiosity, and powered by a deep conviction that the prize for customers is big enough that it’s worth being a little messy and tangential to find our way there,” wrote Bezos.
This thinking implies that cultivating a set of skills and principles in the conscious mind empowers the unconscious to develop more creative and novel solutions through a process of “wandering.” Bezos seems to think that this type of mindset can also be developed in the right environment. Others think intuition is the key to entrepeneruship. Applied to higher education, it means that combining class learning with meaningful experiences outside the classroom, along with a good deal of exploration and reflection, would be likely to produce graduates better equipped to start their careers or even their own businesses.
Of course, this is not new advice to higher education. Some cooperative education (full-time paid internships) schools have been at it for more than 100 years. Now, every school seems to be using internships in some form to improve employability skills and students are into it themselves.
But the question remains. Can entrepreneurship be learned?
We would say “yes,” but the higher education institutions need to create experiential education programs that are highly authentic. real-world, and well-integrated with the student’s developing academic interests, even if those interests change. They need to be accompanied by plenty of reflection so the student can exercise those brain circuits (conscious and unconscious) and grow with the experience. It remains to be seen if this refelction experience can develop intuition as mentioned above, but we we believe it can. That reflection likely requires a mentor or mentors who can address both the academic theory and the practical/industry applications, otherwise it will not be authentic. To get there the higher educational institution has to hold to the highest standards of informed and critical thinking and the application must ring true to the field, especially if the application is to a field of professional studies like engineering, accounting, or healthcare.
Most colleges have opportunities available to students that wish to engage in entrepreneurial activity ranging from business or investment based student organizations to business plan competitions, to internships with local companies. There have also been policy initiatives geared toward incentizing start-ups to work with colleges. Developing better ways for more students to be exposed to entrepreneurship in a manner integrated with their academic program has the potential to create a virtuous cycle where students graduate with an enhanced skill-set and excitement toward their career, and the surrounding community benefits from more students participating in new business. It is likely no accident that the most entrepreneurial places in the U.S. (such as Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin), are anchored by world-class higher educational institutions. Even if these places are simply attracting many “born” entrepreneurs, presumably these future business leaders recognize that they have to learn how to execute their ideas to some extent by way of self-sorting to colleges with reputations for launching companies.