World Academic Summit: innovative and sustainable entrepreneurship in universities

Ahead of the 2018 World Academic Summit, speaker Nicolas Pejout looks at entrepreneurialism in universities

September 4, 2017
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With the development of the digital economy, many millennials aspire to create start-ups.

Meanwhile, numerous countries want to be seen as “start-up nations”, and some big corporations dream about being a part of – or even leading – the disruption.

These trends reveal an underlying phenomenon: the rise of entrepreneurship. This concept bears several definitions, including this one, proposed by Howard Stevenson: “the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled”.

This definition is general enough for us to consider it a matter for learning and research in four important ways that are vital for the development of higher education: entrepreneurship and women; entrepreneurship and the public sector; entrepreneurship and non-entrepreneurs; and entrepreneurship and generations.

Let’s look at them one at a time.

Entrepreneurship and women

The first driver that universities can focus on to foster innovative and sustainable entrepreneurship is the involvement of women. More than 200 million female entrepreneurs in the world are about to set up or are already running a new business. Some 128 million are running established businesses.

There is more to come. International financial institutions want to promote women in entrepreneurship, and the World Bank Group’s new Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative dedicates more than $1 billion (£775 billion) to improving access to funds, technical expertise and investment in projects and small and medium-sized enterprises related to or led by women.

Universities have a crucial role to play in this, particularly when research shows that technology start-ups with at least one female founder have more female employees than major technology companies. They also have twice as many female employees as start-ups with no female founders, and tend to show a stronger performance and a quicker pace of development compared with those established by men.

For some universities, this commitment to “womenpreneurs” in the making is a part of their wider “HeForShe” strategy – some of which have become university champions for the UN gender equality campaign.  

Public entrepreneurship

The second driver in which universities can invest is “public entrepreneurship”. As was highlighted by Mitchell Weiss, public entrepreneurship does not just mean innovation in the public sector, nor is it only policy reform. Based on Howard Stevenson’s definition, it “builds something from nothing with resources – be they financial capital or human talent or new rules – they didn’t command”.

Teaching and researching about entrepreneurship is definitely not limited to business schools. All schools, specifically those related to public affairs, need to take entrepreneurship as a key part in their curriculum so that they do not just train good public managers but rounded public leaders who can become change-makers and risk-takers.

Universities could also develop more extensive learning about public entrepreneurship in deepening their research into three areas: state-owned enterprises that successfully embody entrepreneurship within the public sector; public-private partnerships (PPPs); and the development of policy labs with the participation of students.

Entrepreneurship for non-entrepreneurs

The third workstream for universities to invest in is the training of the soft skills that are typically associated with entrepreneurship.

According to the World Economic Forum, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial. Cognitive abilities (such as creativity or problem sensitivity) will be key, as much as content skills (oral expression, written expression) and process skills (active listening, monitoring self and others).

Social skills will also enable graduates to make a difference (emotional intelligence, negotiation, persuasion), along with systems skills (decision-making, systems analysis) and resource management skills (people and time management, for instance).

These skills, which are often associated with entrepreneurship, are useful for every single student, from undergraduates to PhDs. It is a key for them not to have jobs that will be quickly robotised.

For students to be “entrepreneuring” (without being entrepreneurs), universities need to develop their capacity and their capability to learn throughout their life, and not just sit on their initial degree.

Inter-generational entrepreneurship

The last focus that universities can have on entrepreneurship is that of inter-generational entrepreneurship. Universities tend to build silos between the different levels or types of education: college, master’s, PhD, extension, continuing education and executive education students barely meet or work together. That is quite relevant if we consider the different types of populations and their respective expectations.

Nevertheless, outside universities, people from different generations collaborate every day. Fostering entrepreneurship projects that are open to different generations can be a truly innovative driver for universities to enrich the scope and the depth of not just learning but also the outputs of such projects.

Mixing generations in entrepreneurship classes as well as in incubators can boost creativity and innovation; it will also develop networking. However, this requires universities to adapt their pedagogy for the better.

Nicolas Pejout is director of executive education at Sciences Po. He will be speaking today on ‘Entrepreneurship: how universities can fuel the knowledge economy’ at this year’s Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, hosted by King’s College London from 3-5 September 2017. Follow the conversation at #THEWAS.

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