Does Entrepreneurship come from ­Experiential Learning?

May 5, 2010 at 10:07 PM

Does Entrepreneurship come from ­Experiential Learning?


Allyson Savin NU’07 and Jim Stellar


Allyson was one of the most impressive of the student leaders with whom I had the privilege of working when I was Dean at Northeastern University.  A graduate of the Business College, she is now working in the very timely field of bank regulating for the federal government.  Over our extensive contact during and after her college experience, one element of our recurring conversation has been about individual leadership and how that taking that responsibility can not only lead to growth of the individual person but help the society. 


So to begin, let’s ask Allyson how she defines entrepreneurship and particularly at the level of an individual.


When I think of entrepreneurship, I immediately seek to differentiate between being an entrepreneur versus possessing the spirit of entrepreneurship – two concepts which I do not take to mean the same thing.


Anyone can have the spirit of entrepreneurship without actually being an entrepreneur. The spirit often contains the unyielding need to attain a sense of achievement or accomplishment (broadly defined as success) and a creative approach for how to make processes/people/organizations better.  While being an entrepreneur often requires seeing an opportunity and taking the necessary risks to realize its potential.


But to be honest, I think the original question is limiting. I think that starting with entrepreneurship as a jumping off point immediately conjures the image of a small business owner or risk taker (despite my assertion that there could be multiple interpretations of the word).   Yet, if I understand the purpose of the blog correctly, I’d have to say that a different starting point, say for example, “what role does the feeling of success play in developing an individual?” might provide a better insight into individual leadership and how taking the responsibility can lead to growth of not only the individual, but also lead that person to help society.


For example, are some individuals happier, more motivated, or more successful if they are able to shape the definition of success to fit their lives?  Or, does a person need to fit their life to an unwavering definition of success?  


Keep in mind that the notion of success is not black and white or exclusive of many of the other ideas we have talked about during our mentor/mentee relationship.  For example, as it relates to entrepreneurship, is success merely defined as starting a successful venture? Or can success be found from lessons learned on a “failed” attempt?


In regards to the TED talk by Barry Schwarz on practical wisdom that we discussed a while back– the speaker argues that successful completion of a list of job responsibilities for a hospital janitor may not equate to success. Alternatively, applying practical wisdom to a list of job responsibilities may produce better results – or in other words, more success.


To start at entrepreneurship is really to start at too micro of a level. If I were to put a theme to our conversations, I would argue that it is “success and how people define it, achieve it, and inspire it from others”.  And to draw on your neuroscience background, I would pose this question to you:

What impact do you think EQ versus IQ has on an individual’s success?


To answer your last question first, I think the combination of EQ and IQ is critical.  It is like firing both booster rockets in one’s career development whether in getting the job after college or in getting further higher education in law, medical, business, graduate, or other schooling.  While my career was more in the molecular neuroscience direction, my general reading of human cognitive neurology is that many processes happen at once in the brain and that somehow they get integrated into a stream of behavior. At a very macro level we could call that a career path that fits with who the person believes they are (interests, strengths, …).  The field has seen before thinking that combines broad brain areas, such as a language functioning left hemisphere vs. a spatial functioning right hemisphere.  I think this EQ vs IQ queston could be another one with the developing cognitive knowledge being seen in contrast to the growing emotional (limbic system?) knowledge of oneself and of the world into which that knowledge is applied.


But to go back a bit, I want to accept and say that I really like the re-specification of the question you made by focusing on that “spirit of entrepreneurship” and “feeling of success” ideas.  I like it here particularly because it allows me to ask you a key “otherlobe” question: How did you feel your experiences in college on cooperative education programs and/or as a student leader helped you develop this trait in you?  Or did it?


I could have attended a “better” school – one that had more name recognition or was better ranked; however, and this is critical, I do not think I could have attended a school that did more for me by way of cooperative education and student leadership.  While those two components did not create my spirit of entrepreneurship or need to define, and at times, redefine success, they gave them a foot hold and jumping off point.  Without my co-ops, I would not have known to add on finance as my third concentration/major. And it was that decision that has, by many standards, allowed me to be successful right out of college.  Further, without my student leadership experiences, I would not have been able to foster my spirit of entrepreneurship.  As Executive VP of the Student Government, I had my first real chance to quench my unyielding need to succeed, which for me meant leaving processes, people, and organizations at the University better than where I found them. 


So when you ask “how my experiences in college helped develop my spirit of entrepreneurship and feeling of success?” the answer is easy – without those experiences, I wouldn’t even be collaborating with you on this blog right now.  In other words, without those experiences, I may still be searching for my jumping off point.


The words “jumping off point” seem to us again to summarize the contributions that experience can make to education and to leadership.  No one knows from where the next word or thought comes when we are speaking. Yet it is the quality of a leader to be able to live in that world of continuous creativity working with what is being presented at the moment (usually by people) to mobilize a group or even an idea into action.  We think that mentoring (a real experience with a real person), working, even interacting with students outside of a class (informal learning?) is all part of how experience teaches the receptive student how to take their academic knowledge and tie it to real world concerns.  While we keep reflecting on the basic question asked in the title, another question for us to is how does a receptive college/university maximize that learning so that the students are more work-ready and grow to the highest extent possible to be ready for still more learning?  What do you think?

Cortical subcortical integration and decisions: An amygdala-prefrontal cortex neural circuit case study

6 Responses to “Does Entrepreneurship come from ­Experiential Learning?”

  1. Mary Churchill says:

    Great post Allyson and Jim. Lots going on here — One question — how do you differentiate leadership from entrepreneurship and both of these from success? I see these as three very different concepts that ideally have a sweet spot where they connect — and where “risk-taking” is thrown in.

    Second question — Do you think that successful leadership requires entrepreneurship and risk-taking? I think of two poles of leadership as the externally-facing entrepreneurial leader on the one end and the internally-facing maintainer on the other. Senior leadership teams require a good mixture of both types. I have a strong preference but realize that both are necessary. Additionally, it is interesting to think of definitions of “success” in relation to these two styles of leadership.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Jim Stellar says:

    I have not had a chance to check with Allyson, so I will let her come in on my comment, but in answer to your first question, I do not know but to say something. I see leadership has having a great deal of overlap with entrepreneurship, but it is not the same. Of course, we humans tend to collect success stories and both of them are often told that way.
    What may be really interesting here is how one evaluates risk. If one reads neuroeconomics a lot of those brain circuits are emotional or what neruoscientists call part of the limbic system. The rat in a “Skinner box” shows sensitivity to the reinforcement density on each of two levers by matching its behavior to what is offered. If lever A has twice the pay-off compared to lever B, the rat puts twice as much time/effort into lever A. Skinner’s student at Harvard, Richard Hernstein, called this the Matching Law. I would not say rats show entrepreneurship or leadership in the sense that we humans mean it, but they may have the circuits for assessing risk and pay-off … and we share those brain circuits with rats.
    I am going to stop with your first question for now. I talked enough.

  3. Mary Churchill says:

    Allyson and Jim – Thanks again for writing your original post and for continuing this discussion. I think you are both coming at the issue of risk tolerance from different angles and I agree with both of you. Jim – I see you as saying that risk tolerance increases over time and is linked to perceived rewards and Allyson – I would start with Jim’s point and add it to yours to say that as we develop a greater tolerance for risk-taking, it no longer looks like risk-taking.

    Allyson – I LOVE this —> The primary difference between people who WANT to make the world better and people who DO make the world better — is the degree of risk they are willing to accept in their lives.

    Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Jim and I ended up discussing something very similar earlier this week- At what point in a person’s life do they feel compelled to lead? Compelled to DO? At what point do they realize that not leading and not acting is incredibly selfish, self-centered, self-involved? This then links back to experiential ed – at what point in a person’s career + personal life do they realize this? Can we hypothesize that this a-ha moment happens earlier for those who have participated in experiential ed earlier in their careers? (just a thought)

    Also, Harvard Business school has a new dean and there is a great series of blog posts on the future of leadership. It might be nice to look at those.


  4. Jim says:

    Allyson, Mary,
    Great conversation! I love how Allyson first used the word “risk” in an almost a matter-of-course fashion in her second paragraph in the original post to differentiate the spirit of entrepreneurship from being an entrepreneur. Then Mary jumped on the concept of risk and the conversation took off. I feel this is quite fertile territory. As Allyson just stated, much more can and should be written about risk, leadership, and experiential education … especially when one considers the emerging field of neuroeconomics where judgments are made (risks are weighed), when one considers these are the brain circuits referred to as the “other lobe of the brain” in this blog, and when one considers the potential gender issues in leadership (see University of Venus blog).

  5. Joanna Lund-Pops says:

    In this post, you state that, “… my general reading of human cognitive neurology is that many processes happen at once in the brain and that somehow they get integrated into a stream of behavior. At a very macro level we could call that a career path that fits with who the person believes they are (interests, strengths, …).”

    In reading this, I focused particularly on your use of the word “believes”. A person chooses a career path, you imply, based on who they think they are, what think their finest skills to be. I found this to be an interesting point because, if true, then what would seem to result would be a entire society comprised of citizens performing jobs and careers in line with who they think they are. Not necessarily who they actually are, not necessarily what they could potentially achieve, but who they believe their skills give them the capacity to become. Given that individuals of different socioeconomic standings are often taught to view themselves in line with the traditional job prospects of their class, I question the implications of a society based around who people believe themselves to be. I question it primarily because it is impossible for someone to achieve an entirely non-biased view of who they are, without outside authority figures (parents, teachers, etc.) telling them who they can be, who they are supposed to be.

  6. Jim Stellar says:


    I agree it is hard for someone to know who they are, even with help, even with age. I also do not think we have to worry about changing society with ex ed, at least over our life-times, although everyone seems to agree that we have a lot of work to do as a society. What I do think is that we can get a better educational experience for individual students which can contribute more to their life-long learning, help colleges to increase the work-readiness of their graduates, and help to inspire students to achieve in a way that compliments and enhances traditional academic learning. OK…that sounds pretty ambitious too.


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