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Pass It On

Teaching Business Skills

OK, so there may be a few of you out there who still believe entrepreneurs originate from some sort of mutant ilk-one in which truly headstrong gametes fuse to form biz-savvy zygotes that produce only naturally driven, go-getting offspring whose sole birthright is to launch business ventures, make a cool couple million, and buy a pro sports team just for front row seats. Well, people, that's not always the case.

While it's probably true that many of the most successful entrepreneurs inherently possess a generous dose of self-discipline and an exceptionally creative streak, it's also true that they can be roused, cultivated and nurtured. "I think it's irresponsible to say these skills can't be taught," says Mariotti. "To say that to highly at-risk children does them a great disservice. The basic life skills of business could literally save their lives, and the concept of ownership, particularly for people who were raised owning nothing, truly motivates them."

And when such skills are coupled with on-the-job experiences, hands-on projects and competitive events, like they are at the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) national headquarters in Reston, Virginia, young students' entrepreneurial fires are stoked. Teaching how to market ideas, handle financing and understand risk provides students with the materials they need to make their dreams become realities. "What we teach is not necessarily creativity, because I don't think you can teach that," says Tim Coffey, DECA corporate development director. "And you can't teach someone to have an idea, but you can teach them what to do with it."

Such concepts as networking, writing business plans and organizing resources are also components that organizations like SIFE instill in their students, who in turn share them by teaching youth in the community. "Our tendency is to look at entrepreneurs as natural-born leaders, but the reality is, leadership and entrepreneurship are both highly teachable skills. We really just give up on a lot of people way too early," says Rohrs. "For anybody who's willing to take some component of risk, somebody's got to teach them exactly how to go do it."

"And there are a lot of people who, with some structure and direction, can be helped to create their own business ideas and plans," adds De Berg. "It's imperative we allow our students to get into the 'create mode' rather than the 'react mode.'"

Babson, too, goes through a "create" mode, specifically through its fusion of curriculum with reality-a concept that Spinelli calls "a clashroom technique"-via hatcheries open to students' ventures while they're still enrolled. "We never make up a case to illustrate a point," he maintains. "We always take it out of the real world."

"I love it when an entrepreneur says you can't teach entrepreneurship, and they've been successful for the past four decades," Spinelli continues. "That's when I ask, 'That's interesting, you haven't learned anything in 40 years about what you do?' And they say, 'No, no, no, no-I've learned quite a bit.' And then I counter with, "'Well, if you can learn it, we can teach it!'"

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This article was originally published in the June 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Pass It On.

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