Education and entrepreneurship leaders have been buzzing about the major investments universities are making in entrepreneurship and startup programs. That excitement isn’t hurt by the fact that the New York Times wrote about these investments a few weeks ago: “…colleges -- and elite institutions in particular -- have become engaged in an innovation arms race. Harvard opened an Innovation Lab in 2011 that has helped start more than 75 companies. Last year, New York University founded a campus entrepreneurs’ lab, and this year Northwestern University opened a student start-up center, the Garage.” And “In November, Princeton celebrated the opening of a 10,000-square-foot Entrepreneurial Hub near campus.”
While the acceleration and visibility of these investments is new, a college carving out intellectual and literal space for entrepreneurs isn’t especially so. Boston’s Babson College has been a leader in entrepreneurship education for a long time, and their well-regarded program on entrepreneurship is nearly 20 years old already.
Still, the renewed passions, investments and attention to the role entrepreneurs play are welcomed. Entrepreneurs, like other preoccupations and occupations, need resources and support. And colleges are playing it smart to try to entice and retain students who are drawn to the startup life. Those students, the colleges realize, tend to be motivated, creative and tenacious. In the Times article, David W. Leebron, the President of Rice University said, “This is a nontrivial group of students, some of the smartest students, the most creative students.”
That’s exactly right. Entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship students are absolutely worth major investments from the education community.
At the same time, those investments should flow down to or be matched by similar investments in entrepreneurship teaching and learning aimed at younger students -- as early as middle school. Research shows that the important lessons of entrepreneurship can be learned that early. And learning about entrepreneurship early can have major life-long benefits including self-sufficiency, resiliency and creative problem solving.
It would be very helpful and send a strong message if some of the universities doubling down on entrepreneurship labs and startup garages adopted entrepreneurship programs in local or regional schools as well. Since it’s been said that you don’t really understand something until you have to teach it, getting college-age entrepreneurs and their mentors and professors in public high school classrooms could be a big win across the board.
Those wins could be compounded if those adopted programs were in schools with high populations of disadvantaged students. Doing that could open student’s eyes to the power of entrepreneurship and the benefits of college -- which is at least part of what these new colleges programs aim to do. By investing a little more a little earlier in the entrepreneurship process, colleges and startups alike may also find that their students and founders are better prepared and more successful.
That’s not to take anything away from what’s already happening for entrepreneurship at the college level and in the K-12 system. The size, scope and impact of these programs are growing, because more and more people see the benefits they provide. But more resources and greater collaboration are always helpful -- in business as well as education.
Entrepreneurship skills, and the important mindset behind them, are growing more important every day and are already nearly indispensable in the new, fluid, creative economy. That ‘s why getting behind teaching entrepreneurs -- regardless of where it happens -- is smart policy and a great long-term investment.