Why Entrepreneurship Should Be Taught Before College
What would the world look like if kids grew up understanding the potential that entrepreneurship offers?
I wish I’d been taught entrepreneurship when I was young for lots of reasons.
As a farm boy in Idaho, all I knew about my potential career was that I didn’t want to be poor when I grew up. My grandpa, who was a successful doctor, suggested I become an anesthesiologist, and I latched onto his advice as if it were gospel.
But if I had found out I was wired to be an entrepreneur early on, I would have entered my college years with a stronger sense of who I was, and had a more deliberate plan.
What we stand to lose by not teaching kids business
I believe there are innumerable people wired to be entrepreneurs who, for lack of opportunity, get stuck on a track that keeps them from capitalizing on their gifts. This is our loss as much as theirs — imagine if Elon Musk had been firmly pointed in a non-entrepreneurial direction as a child and had ended up as the CFO of a drug company rather than a revolutionizer of the auto industry, space travel, and payment systems.
There are Elon Musks out there who won’t make their mark because the entrepreneurial seed wasn’t planted when it stood the greatest chance of taking root and blossoming. There are tons of kids like me who will never tap into their talents because they were told they had no potential or because they had a difficult time following the rules.
But entrepreneurial types are notoriously deficient when it comes to orthodox behavior. They have an innate ability to think outside the box, which can render rigidly traditional approaches intensely boring. When kids are bored, they tend to act out. They don’t pay attention and their grades suffer.
But even kids without tons of business ability would benefit from a business education. Most small businesses fail because people find out they don’t have business ability the hard way. They attempt to start their own companies and when that doesn’t work out, it becomes a major financial (and emotional) setback.
Why everyone would benefit from learning business skills
I owned a commercial sign company in my 20s, and I remember one client in particular. When I first talked with him on the phone about what kind of sign he wanted, he was brimming with enthusiasm. He was bright and articulate, and seemed like a success story in the making.
Then I walked into his store. We shook hands, and as I glanced to my right I saw a giant display of cell phones. As I glanced to my left I saw a giant display of specialty soaps.
My client excitedly explained that he’d cashed out his 401(k) to bankroll his new business. He was animated as he described how his wife loved specialty soaps, while he got a kick out of cell phones.
He asked me to imagine it: You wander into a store looking for specialty soaps, and decide that you may as well kill two birds with one stone and buy a cell phone too. Or maybe you’re in the mood for a new cell phone — why not pick up a bar or two of fragrant specialty soap while you’re at it?
I was a business noob myself back then, but even so, his plan sounded a little weird to me. The guy was twice my age; I assumed his advanced years gave him some special insights.
Six months later, he called me again. With noticeably diminished enthusiasm, he asked me to come back and take down the sign I’d built. I asked him what happened. He said it was the darndest thing, but it turned out that cell phones and specialty soaps weren’t the new chocolate and peanut butter. He was returning to his previous employer significantly poorer than when he left.
The poor guy had naively thrown away his entire savings. An early business education may not have saved him, but more familiarity with the subject would undoubtedly have helped him make better decisions. He might have realized that business wasn’t his thing to begin with, or he might have come up with an idea less obviously doomed to fail.
Sooner is better than later for an entrepreneurial education
There are over 30 million small businesses in the U.S., employing some 58 million people. It’s crazy that a subject so vital to our economy isn’t introduced to our citizens in their formative years, when their minds are open to anything and they absorb information with a speed and permanence they’ll never enjoy again.
30 million is a huge number. Even if your kids ultimately decide that they don’t want to open a business, there’s a very good chance they’ll end up working for one.
Too many young people view business as a dull and intimidating mix of suits and ties and spreadsheets. They don’t see it for what it essentially is — a creative endeavor that can be as thrilling and rewarding as art forms like film and literature.
After two weeks in college, I made an appointment with a counselor. I was a pre-med student, yet I hated biology and was already overwhelmed by the workload. When the counselor asked why I wanted to be an anesthesiologist, I said it was because I didn’t want to be poor.
She gently explained that there were lots of ways not to be poor. I wish someone had told me in kindergarten that entrepreneurship was one of them.
Levi King is CEO and co-founder of Nav.