Universities should teach responsibility and ethics – not risk-taking and failure – to create entrepreneurs, according to an innovation expert.
Candace Johnson, serial entrepreneur and architect of SES Global, one of the world’s largest satellite systems, said that one of the most important ways to succeed as an entrepreneur is to “think positively”.
Speaking at the Times Higher Education Innovation & Impact Summit at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, she said: “I’m not sure it’s OK to fail – entrepreneurs just think they haven’t succeeded yet.”
She added: “When people tell me something is not possible, or even if they just tell me ‘no’, it’s not in my vocabulary, it’s not in my mind. I think there must be a way to do this, and there always is.”
When asked how higher education can help students become entrepreneurs, during a question and answer session after her speech, Ms Johnson said that one of the challenges is that students arrive “too late”.
She said that her first taste of entrepreneurship came aged five when she ran her own lemonade stand.
“Just like when you learn to read when you’re four or five, this is when you need to be told that you can do everything and that you must work hard and you must take [the] initiative,” she said.
However, she said that universities can take a similar approach in order to teach entrepreneurship.
“Do not teach risk and failure. Teach responsibility and that you have a responsibility to make this happen,” she said.
Later, she drew on her experience of attending Vassar College, a New York liberal arts institution, saying that “learning how to think and to be responsible”, and learning about ethics, was “so important”.
She also criticised the common perception that entrepreneurs are “intuitive” and “creative”.
“No, actually they think very hard, they put their ideas down on paper and they have financial numbers to back it all up,” she said.
Later in the conference, Henry Lane Fox, co-founder and CEO of Founders Factory, which supports the creation of start-ups, spoke about how his business is using artificial intelligence to identify common characteristics of successful founders in order to spot potential entrepreneurs before they become innovators.
It is also in the process of conducting similar work to discover graduate talent before they get their first job, he said.
Mr Lane Fox said that although entrepreneurs cannot be created, you can “nudge” people who have the right characteristics.
He added that there is a “bit of a Silicon Valley myth” that “not going to a university is a great thing” and that entrepreneurs should “learn by doing as fast as they can”.
Mr Lane Fox said that while many of the founders of multibillion-pound businesses “have a somewhat unusual academic background”, when you look at a broader range of companies, the data show that “academic excellence is unquestionably an indicator of success” in becoming an entrepreneur.
In preparing people for the future, he added, universities should not try to predict which jobs might be in demand and train students for them but should rather “train people how to think”, he added.