Want entrepreneurs? Then teach ethics, says leading innovator

Candace Johnson says universities should cultivate a belief in their students that they ‘can do everything’

June 1, 2017
Candace Johnson

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.

Access all the coverage from the Innovation & Impact Summit 2017

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.


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Reader's comments (3)

I have to completely disagree with this article. You won't learn entrepreneurship from a school first of all. It's not something you can teach. School is designed to learn and consume and get you ready for a 9-5 job. If you want to be an entrepreneur you need to go out and do your own thing. Learn it first hand, not from a book. Formal education fails entrepreneurs but self-education liberates them. http://infinityillusion.com/self-education-school-waste-time/
She does excellent job explaining how her background including critical thinking and ethics prepared her to become successful Entrepreneur. Couldn't agree more. We need millions more who will talk like this and emphasize Ethics as critical to success. Indeed critical to the salvation of our species. Ethics gets hardly any exposure anywhere.
This piece starts by reporting on some spoken nonsense and recovers by reporting on some common sense, albeit with some flaws in it. I'm sure Candace Johnson is a decent individual and means well. I'd never heard of her but I discovered quite quickly that some people think a great deal of her achievements ... good for her. But it leaves me even more confused as to why she would promote those ideas that she does. By all means offer Ethics, or something similar, to students but please don't try to promote a link between studying it, or something similar, and the subsequent opening of some magical entrepreneurial door. In fact some of the world's most successful entrepreneurs are relatively unqualified in anything other than their talents. The truth is Universities can't produce entrepreneurs and in my view they are wrong to try. Of course Universities will always claim success when one of their students succeeds in becoming entrepreneurial; but in truth they were as likely to achieve as an entrepreneur without their studies. I would agree with Lane Smith that Schools and Universities should focus on educating young people rather than try and train them specifically for a career. The crucial point is that no amount of training, education, or experience can unlock qualities that are not there. No matter how positive you encourage young people to be, most of them will not be entrepreneurial and most of them will fail trying. Personal success is not a qualification which should be allowed to promote particular behaviour in young people. Doing so is not only delusional but it is also disingenuous. The modern student deserves better.

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