This January, I taught a three-week course to undergraduates at NYU Abu Dhabi where student teams have focused on a startup idea. These ideas all integrate technology and were focused on creating large-scale impact. The workload was heavy, and each night, these students were expected to work for several hours and interview prospective customers, analyze that data, integrate it into their product plan and then come in the next day and present their analysis to the class. Two key questions immediately came to mind in this environment: can entrepreneurship be taught, and if so, what view should one have around the educational process of teaching entrepreneurship.
The expected outcome of our course is not to have every student go out and create their own startup tomorrow (though some will do just that). Instead, I am arming them with a process that can be deployed at any point in their career, for example, leading a team to develop a new product within a large corporation, something which my former students have done successfully using the process they learned in my class. A course that teaches this process can be condensed or expanded depending on the desired level of depth with each topic.
There are many myths that surround the startup and entrepreneurial culture. The Hero. The Visionary. Being at the Right Time and Right Place. Yet, the reality of successful startups and founders rarely matches the myths. There is no mythical “entrepreneur gene” or archetype that exists for the gifted and charismatic few who are in the right place at the right time with a brilliant new product. The truth is, entrepreneurship can be taught, and entrepreneurs come in many shapes and sizes.
With the availability and access to proper education around entrepreneurship, becoming an entrepreneur becomes more and more demystified. But you need more than an entrepreneurship education, you need the proper foundation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) based skills and education to produce students capable of “building” things. The ability to build “things” as an entrepreneur cannot be underestimated. Software engineers that can write computer code, designers that can design beautiful interfaces, mechanical and electrical engineers that can build early prototypes of devices are all essential to take the educational process and make it real.
Over the past several decades, successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists (VCs) have distilled key processes for aspiring entrepreneurs that significantly reduce the risk of failure in starting a new venture. One aspect of the approach we employ is taking the scientific process (assumption, hypothesis and testing) and applying it to a real world scenario.
In the same way you would not allow someone to operate on you without medical training, you will not encounter a successful entrepreneur that has not learned the fundamental process to develop an incredible product. A more scientific and experiential learning approach to entrepreneurship produces a scalable, repeatable and capital efficient process. This is an accessible method that can now be taught to students of various backgrounds, not just engineers, but undergraduates and graduates of all majors.
While you can never get rid of all the variables that exist, you can increase the chances of success with learning key techniques such as how to perform customer discovery and validation, how to measure market size, understanding customer acquisition and evaluating key metrics of the economics of the business. This process requires students to work together in teams to “get out of the building,” test their core assumptions and hypotheses and identify a key customer segment before developing a product. They then repeat this feedback loop until they have a market ready product.
Yet, the process is only one component to creating a viable ecosystem. Once these core pieces are in place, including access to the right education and the necessary technical skills, experienced and educated investors are necessary. Core to the building of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is that founders and employees are governed and incentivized properly as the company grows, while also ensuring the investors receive returns that are properly correlated to the risks. Mentors, second-generation entrepreneurs, educated advisors and board members are also part of this mosaic.
I have seen many exciting initiatives sprouting up in the UAE, aimed at supporting the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. There are a growing number of courses offered at the university level, increasing numbers of startup incubators and accelerators, new angel investor groups and VC firms and greater involvement from the government in supporting innovation and entrepreneurship. Though each of these stakeholders plays an important independent role, when they act in concert, they can create a strong entrepreneurship culture.
This article was co-written with Robyn Brazzil, who is the Program Manager of the IDEA Lab at NYU Abu Dhabi, a program aimed at enabling innovation and entrepreneurship within the university and the broader UAE community.