Fostering entrepreneurial spirit

Business can be a creative and rewarding experience, so invest in your students by encouraging them to develop ideas, to take the initiative and to engage with the local community

May 15, 2008

If you want students to be more entrepreneurial, you need first to think about the attributes of an entrepreneur, says Allan Gibb, professor emeritus of small business management at Durham University Business School.

Such attributes include looking for opportunities, taking the initiative, making decisions, seeing things through, identifying problems and finding creative solutions. “Think about pedagogies you might use to develop these attributes,” he suggests.

Your teaching should give increase the element of self-discovery and relate what students are doing to real problems. The convention that a student produces a good piece of work that is then discussed and put to one side is wrong, he says. “In the real world, you do it again, practise it and do it better.”

Paul Hannon, director of research and education at the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, says that if you are designing a course to encourage entrepreneurship you have to be clear about what you want to achieve. You may want students to develop entrepreneurial attitudes and values and/or to gain a sense of what it is really like to be an entrepreneur.

Luke Pittaway, director of the enterprise and regional development unit at Sheffield University Management School, advises thinking about what enterprise means for your discipline. You can then incorporate relevant content in your programme. In one UK university, students operate a software company as part of their computer science degrees. In medicine, you could help students think about setting up a GP surgery; in dance or music you may focus on skills needed for managing a portfolio career.

In some subjects, in particular the social sciences, Pittaway says the idea of enterprise may be politically sensitive. But you could still incorporate ways for students to learn about finding creative solutions or meet people linked to the field.

Gibb says that engaging students with people working in their subject discipline is a valuable way of keeping them connected to the real world. You should help them to get to know this “community of practice”. At the same time, he advocates getting students to mix with counterparts in other disciplines.

He argues that the ability to develop good relationships is key to becoming a successful entrepreneur. “The essence of a good entrepreneur is to get into the shoes of customers.”

Keith Gore, executive director of Students in Free Enterprise UK, a global non-profit organisation that challenges teams on university campuses to develop community outreach projects, says academics need to encourage students to get involved in the community.

He says: “This has two advantages. It gives them opportunities to focus their inquiries and see results, and they can also do a tremendous amount of good.” Not only is corporate responsibility becoming a bigger issue in the business world, but students are more likely to impress future employers if they have some real-world experience, he says.

Manu Bhardwaj, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student at Nottingham University, has developed a new wheelchair design. He says he is motivated by the idea of changing people’s standard of living. Lecturers who get their students to help with projects that have a clear impact on people's lives are likely to inspire entrepreneurial spirit, he suggests. But they also need to give students the chance to develop basic entrepreneurial skills.

His advice to lecturers is to be more proactive and enthusiastic about entrepreneurship. “Say that starting a business is not a bad thing,” he says. “Tell students they are not doomed to failure.”

Pittaway says you should encourage students to see their involvement in student societies in an entrepreneurial light as well as encouraging them to join enterprise schemes such as Students in Free Enterprise or Young Enterprise or the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship's Flying Start programme.

But he stresses that it is important to identify what individual students want. Some simply hope to become more enterprising, while others have firm ambitions to become the next Richard Branson.

Links:

Students in Free Enterprise

Young Enterprise: a charity running business and enterprise education programmes

National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship

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