Can School Make You a Better Entrepreneur?

We've all heard the business success stories of famous dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. But are there benefits to studying entrepreneurship?

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By Antonio Neves


This story originally appeared on Business on Main

Over the course of my career as a business journalist, I've interviewed scores of entrepreneurs. One thing they all have in common is a passion for their work. One thing they don't have in common is their educational background.

Some have high school diplomas. Many have bachelor's degrees. Others have MBAs. Entrepreneurship definitely is not a one-size-fits-all kind of world when it comes to education.

So, I set out to explore a question that many have asked themselves at various points: Does studying entrepreneurship actually make you a better entrepreneur?

Can entrepreneurship be taught?
Entrepreneurship is hot. Across the country, there are numerous undergraduate and graduate programs focused on entrepreneurial education. But this raises the question, is it a skill that can be learned at school versus on the job?

"Entrepreneurship can be taught," says Caroline Daniels, a professor at Babson College, which regularly ranks as having the top entrepreneurial education program in the country. "But passion for an idea, for the opportunity, has to come from the entrepreneur."

Advocates of entrepreneurial education say that it provides students with the tools to identify opportunities and develop successful business models. But for many, entrepreneurial education should extend beyond the classroom.

"You might as well learn as much as you can from as many sources as you can," says entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau, author of the New York Times best-seller "The $100 Startup." "Experience may indeed be the best teacher, but you can certainly supplement that education with more traditional or nontraditional kinds."

For many, a graduate degree or MBA education opens the door to entrepreneurship. In fact, many MBA grads are starting their own companies rather than seeking out traditional employment. A record 16 percent of Stanford's Graduate School of Business class of 2011 decided to start their own companies.

And certainly, there are startup CEOs who feel their business degrees are paying dividends. "My graduate degree from the VCU Brandcenter really shaped the way I think around creativity, innovation and disrupting the status quo," says Michael Karnjanaprakorn, the CEO of Skillshare. "It's made me a better entrepreneur because it allowed me to view the world in a different way, which led to the creation of my company."

Is it worth it?
With our country's struggling economy and high unemployment, organizations like the Thiel Fellowship and UnCollege are challenging the status quo and expectations of not just an entrepreneurial education, but of a university education overall.

"College isn't 100 percent evil like most people are playing it out to be," says Karnjanaprakorn. "I think the timing is different for every entrepreneur. Some start companies at 18, and others at 28 like myself."

But with student loan debt out of control, the cost of a traditional education is something to take into consideration, particularly for aspiring entrepreneurs who are likely to have to bootstrap as they launch a new venture.

"Far too many young people are spending tens of thousands of dollars they don't have to train for jobs that don't exist," says Guillebeau, who studied sociology and international studies in college.

What college can provide, according to some, is a laboratory to experiment.

"Babson College provided me with a safe and controlled environment to grow and develop as an individual and explore the world and my place in it," says Danial Malik, a 2012 graduate. "This is a little more complicated to do when you're not in college."

The verdict: Should you study entrepreneurship?
If you're wondering whether you should take the leap and go to school to study entrepreneurship, the short answer is, it depends. A college education is, after all, a major financial investment. All the people I interviewed recommend taking a careful look at the curriculum of a proposed university before emptying out your bank account.

"For decades, most business schools have trained students to be midlevel managers at Fortune 500 corporations," Guillebeau says. "This is a much different career than being an entrepreneur."

One thing entrepreneurs do well is take action, but what about when there's such a major commitment of time and money to pursue a degree?

"Taking the first step can be daunting," Daniels says. "But methodology and creating opportunities and business models in a [college] where you are surrounded by like-minded, energetic individuals and teams can make the difference."

So should you enter the classroom or strike out on your own? There's no one right way. It seems there are advantages to having a combination of both experiences.

"There are certain things that can be taught -- frameworks, concepts, et cetera," Karnjanaprakorn says. "But the only way to learn about entrepreneurship is by doing it."

Antonio Neves

Workplace Engagement Speaker, Award-Winning Journalist and Author

Antonio Neves is the author of Stop Living on Autopilot, host of The Best Thing podcast and an internationally recognized speaker.


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