For more than 25 years, the organization I run has been teaching young people -- mostly high-school-age students -- how to think like entrepreneurs. In that time, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) has exposed more than 500,000 students to the power of the entrepreneurship mindset.
Our curriculum is different because our teachers don’t just lecture or assign work. Our teachers guide students through the stages of launching a business. Students buy wholesale goods, retail their products and write business and marketing plans.
More than creating waves of fledgling businesses, we aim to empower generations of thinkers with the entrepreneurship mindset.
The first step in that mindset -- the thing we lead our students to discover first -- is opportunity recognition.
While the exact components and essential sequences of an entrepreneurship mindset aren’t accepted by everyone yet, most agree that the ability to recognize opportunity is the first step. It may also be the easiest to understand and identify.
Usually on the very first day of our classroom experience our teachers ask students to think of an idea and pitch it to their classmates. Knowing when you have an idea, and the ability to explain it to others, is opportunity recognition in its simplest form.
More is expected of entrepreneurs though.
We expect entrepreneurs to be innovators. We expect entrepreneurial ideas to be worthy of consumer and capital investment. In the technology sector, the benchmark is that an idea should be transformative or disruptive.
However good or investment-worthy an idea is, the “ah-ha” moment of inspiration is the on-ramp to entrepreneurship. And it can be learned.
Go out and explore. In our classrooms we teach students to go for a walk. In some cases we literally take our students for walks around their schools or neighborhoods for the purpose of seeing what is not there. Or, more accurately, thinking about what should be there.
Quickly, students realize that a city block with four dry cleaning stores may not be the best place for another, but may be perfect for a retail accessories store. Or a home delivery service.
Ask questions. Those looking to recognize opportunity can also go grocery shopping. Talk to shoppers and ask what they are buying and why. Ask what product they wish they could buy but isn’t available. If you work in an office, sit with your company’s office supply purchaser and ask the same questions.
At NFTE, our teachers advise our students to start with what they know. We’ve found that those who know the neighborhood or their workplace best have an advantage in recognizing opportunity there.
The success in recognizing opportunity, though, lies in asking the questions about what is missing or what could be better.
Getting good at that mindset takes practice and habit formation. In a short time, students become young entrepreneurs who begin to see opportunity everywhere. Even though it’s just the first step on the path of learning an entrepreneurship mindset, the power of recognizing opportunity is transformative -- whether you are in high school and begin to see your neighborhood and future differently or in a C-suite corner office and can visualize your product in a new way.
That’s opportunity recognition, and when you start doing it, you’re on your way to thinking like -- and perhaps being -- an entrepreneur.