Over the past three decades, the world has witnessed a string of breakout successes that have put tech entrepreneurs in the spotlight. Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and the more recent Tumblr, Instagram and Whatsapp. The youth of today look up to billionaire role models like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jan Koum, all college dropouts. Of the top 400 people on Forbes Billionaire list, 63 are dropouts. Here at home in the Gulf, governments are anxious to encourage and foster entrepreneurship, but colleges are struggling to keep up. The pace of innovation has marginalized colleges, and the availability of non-traditional learning via the Internet has made it possible for entrepreneurs to learn what they need to start successful businesses. "When these incredible tools of knowledge and learning are available to the whole world, formal education becomes less and less important," according to Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame, another college dropout.
I am an educator by training and taught five years in both primary and tertiary education in the UAE and Saudi Arabia before I left to found Melltoo, a social network that helps people buy and sell used things. Over the course of seven months since our launch in March 2014, we have worked with nine youths between the ages of 17-25, from a variety of educational backgrounds, including six who were educated in the UAE. My interns are a motivated bunch, however, the majority of them needed to be trained from scratch in things that they should already have learned in college. Having insight as both an educator and a startup founder, here are my takeaways on what colleges in the region can do to stay relevant in today's startup world.
1. De-emphasize structures
In the Gulf, college programs are highly structured and inflexible. Perhaps as a means to control quality, professors are restricted when setting curricular objectives and students are expected to follow a rigid program in order to graduate. The bulk of assessment takes place in the form of tests which have right and wrong answers. In reality, entrepreneurship is messy and doesn't follow a set pattern. Each entrepreneur's story differs from the next. Flexibility and being able to adapt are more important than following rules.
Colleges should introduce flexibility into degree programs. One way to do this is to allow students to create their own degree programs within a given discipline, a practice colleges in the West are adopting. In order to maintain quality, the final project should have the student put her learning to use. For instance, if the student is graduating with a degree in marketing, she might take art classes, graphic design, speech and acting classes, in addition to traditional marketing courses. Her final project might be to create a marketing presentation for a business that incorporates multimedia and graphics, and that is delivered to an auditorium full of students.
2. Flip "theory before practice" on its head
The existing model of education is to first learn theory, then put theory into practice. In today's rapidly changing business landscape, "theory before practice" is way too slow. First of all, academic thinking evolves slowly, requiring multiple layers of review before new ideas are accepted by the academic community. By the time an idea makes it into a textbook, it has become obsolete. In business, good theory doesn't always equal good practice. Business and entrepreneurship is about time and place. Today, businesses are fighting to acquire users by giving their product away for free. Amazon and Uber go even further and lose money while selling their product in order to crush competition and acquire users. Arguably, theory would discourage this but time and place demand it.
Entrepreneurs learn as they do. In fact, many entrepreneurs only learn what they have to in order to do what they have to. Learning without applying means forgetting; and there is no time to learn what cannot be applied immediately. When Melltoo onboards interns, we conduct a one-day workshop that paints in broad brush strokes the strategy of the company and where interns fit in. We provide some theory, but no one really "gets it". The only purpose is to set context. The real learning takes place when interns execute assigned tasks. College courses can be structured similarly. Let the textbook be a reference, make the curricular a semester-long project that accomplishes practical (not theoretical) objectives. Instead of assigning problem sets in accounting, get students to work with SMEs in the community that need help with their accounting. Most local "baqalahs" or grocery stores probably do. The learning might be messy and not uniformed, but you can be sure that even the "C-students" will actually learn.
3. Re-assess assessments: Get rid of tests
Written tests and assignments are easy and efficient ways to assess large numbers of students. But they are only good at predicting success at one thing- test-taking skills. Right and wrong answers also give students the wrong impression that there is always a right way or wrong way to do things. This hampers problem-solving skills since students can't think out of the box; they're used to only one right way to do anything.
In the real world, entrepreneurs are tested constantly, but there is never time to prepare for the test and there is no right answer. What works for Souq.com doesn't work for Melltoo.8 Souq.com acquires users through advertising and paid ads; Melltoo, as a startup with limited resources, acquires users organically through app store optimization and growth hacking. What works for Melltoo today might not work for us tomorrow. There isn't one right way of doing anything in business.
Tests are not only poor at assessing skills, they also foster an anti-entrepreneurial mindset. Skills should be assessed through demonstration. Minimize testing and emphasize practical application of skills. Management courses should have students managing people in achieving specified goals. Over the course of a semester, students can be placed into rotating teams where they each take turns managing a small group to execute a project (consider cross-curricular integration). For instance, a group of four students can group together for a week-long project to craft a marketing pitch for a well-known product targeted to a niche audience. The following week, groups are reshuffled with new managers and new projects. Again, use the text as a reference and the professor acts as a facilitator and mentor. Grades are assigned based on success of the project, self and peer assessment against a pre-defined management skills rubric.
4. Business programs should be run like incubators
Dave McClure of 500 startups, a micro VC and accelerator based in Silicon Valley, says: "Rather than pay US$50,000 for an MBA to read about other people's businesses and not learn much, why not let us give you $50,000 to succeed or even fail at your own business and learn a lot?" Few people can argue that learning by doing doesn't work. If the goal is to foster entrepreneurship, why not incorporate starting up a business as part of the curriculum? Many of the most successful businesses of today were started in college dorm rooms by founders who later dropped out. If college acted like an incubator and made resources available for these founders, it's arguable that they could have completed their degrees by founding a business.
Startup incubators support founders by providing workspace, mentorship, and camaraderie among startups. These elements are all available in a university. Workspace is plentiful, professors should in theory be the best mentors, and camaraderie is easy to build among college students working and living together. If colleges leverage their available resources, the costs of starting a business are far lower within a college setting than outside. Visa fees, rent and utilities are paid, there is access to a pool of inexpensive labor (other college students), users are easier to acquire (other students, alumni, staff, the surrounding community), the college can subsidize marketing costs through internal marketing channels (campus newspapers, listservs, campus media), and local partners and investors are much easier to connect with through the collegiate network.
If entrepreneurship is truly the end goal, regional colleges and universities have some programmatic adjustments to make. The key to training future entrepreneurs is to create an environment that is as similar to the business world as possible. Loosening up structures, emphasizing skills other than test-taking skills and learning while doing are the way to go.