Weak entrepreneurship education could provoke backlash

SAN FRANCISCO Fri Aug 16, 2013 1:31pm EDT

Bill Aulet, Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship, is pictured in this 2012 handout photo provided by the MIT Sloan School of Management. REUTERS/MIT Sloan School of Management/Handout via Reuters

Bill Aulet, Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship, is pictured in this 2012 handout photo provided by the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Credit: Reuters/MIT Sloan School of Management/Handout via Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - When Bill Aulet tries to hire faculty to bolster entrepreneurship courses at MIT, where he is a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management, he often runs up against a familiar challenge.

"We bring in people and interview them all the time," he said at a breakfast in San Francisco last week to mark the publication of his new book, "Disciplined Entrepreneurship." "They're not MIT rigor. And we get to see the best of the best."

The paucity of teaching talent underscores what he sees as the biggest drawback in entrepreneurship education: much of it is subpar, relying on what he describes as inspirational anecdotes rather than demanding courses that teach discrete behaviors and processes. The situation could cause a backlash against entrepreneurship, he said.

Such a backlash, Aulet said, could lead to undesirable outcomes including lack of policy geared toward entrepreneurship - such as tax breaks, or visas for foreign entrepreneurs - or fewer people starting companies.

"Entrepreneurs won't receive the support they need," he said in an interview with Reuters.

His outlook led him to write "Disciplined Entrepreneurship," which he said fills in some of the gaps for students not lucky enough to attend entrepreneurship classes at MIT. It focuses on how to settle on and deliver the right product for a start-up, through chapters such as market segmentation, product specification and pricing frameworks.

He sees the book supplementing programs offered at universities and private institutions such as the incubators that try to foster young companies, including Y Combinator, based in Mountain View, Calif., and TechStars, held in several locations around the country.

Aulet, who is also the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, is not alone in his reasoning when it comes to the academic programs and the students they attract.

"We probably have a lot of inflated hopes layered over not great methodology," said Dane Stangler, director of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation, an entrepreneurship-oriented think tank. As graduates start businesses, many of which will fail, they will come to resent the time and effort they spent on the courses.

"I worry a backlash looks like, ‘Oh, this entrepreneurship stuff isn't all it's cracked up to be,'" Stangler said in a telephone interview. "That entrepreneurship gains a bad name."

But Dave Altounian, an entrepreneur turned academic at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, said he doesn't quite see eye to eye with Aulet when it comes to academic standards in entrepreneurship education.

"I'm looking at a lot of empirically researched papers," he says. ""The rigor used to look at a lot of entrepreneurship is significant."

Where he agrees with Aulet is on the need for a blend of instruction from both sides, including the richness of experience that practicing entrepreneurs can bring to the classroom. How to perfect the blend is becoming an increasingly hot topic at the nation's universities, he said.

At some level, any insights into entrepreneurial methods that students can gain is helpful, says Alison Wagonfeld, a partner at Emergence Capital and a former case-study writer for the Harvard Business School, because it can help change their thinking.

An increasing number of Americans are trying their hand at entrepreneurship. More than 400,000 new businesses started in 2011, data from the Kauffman Foundation and the Census Bureau's Business Dynamics Statistics show. That is up from fewer than 390,000 in 2010 and reverses several years of declines.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurship education is growing in prominence, with more than 5,000 colleges and universities offering entrepreneurship courses, compared with 250 in 1985, according to the Kauffman Foundation. More than 500 universities offer formal programs such as majors, minors or certificates in entrepreneurship, Kauffman Foundation data shows.

(Reporting By Sarah McBride; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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Comments (2)
Where are the mentors? The only reason my husband and I became entrepreneurs is because the first person to give my husband an engineering job out of college became a life-long friend and mentor. I am talking 32 years later. College courses are one thing, but to have your potential recognized by a superior in your field who believes you are worth the time and effort to teach and guide is priceless. We modeled everything they did, professionally and personally. Our success is their success. Where has that philosophy gone? Neither of us graduated from an Ivy League school. When you have a mentor, you can accomplish your dreams just the same. Perhaps colleges should consider teaching mentorship as well as entrepreneurship.

Aug 16, 2013 4:02pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Where are the mentors? The only reason my husband and I became entrepreneurs is because the first person to give my husband an engineering job out of college became a life-long friend and mentor. I am talking 32 years later. College courses are one thing, but to have your potential recognized by a superior in your field who believes you are worth the time and effort to teach and guide is priceless. We modeled everything they did, professionally and personally. Our success is their success. Where has that philosophy gone? Neither of us graduated from an Ivy League school. When you have a mentor, you can accomplish your dreams just the same. Perhaps colleges should consider teaching mentorship as well as entrepreneurship.

Aug 16, 2013 4:02pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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