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Joseph E. Aoun

Giving students an enterprising path to start on

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AS WE continue to look for strategies to jump-start the American economy, here’s one way we can promote innovation and accelerate economic growth over the longer term: give every college student the opportunity to be an entrepreneur.

There’s no doubt students would support such an initiative. In a recent national poll commissioned by Northeastern University, more than two-thirds of Americans between 18 and 30 said it’s “extremely important” or “very important” for colleges and universities to teach students about entrepreneurship, including how to start their own businesses.

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It’s no surprise why. Today, 54 percent of American college graduates under 25 are either unemployed or working in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. This is due in part to the lackluster economy — but it’s also because job prospects for college graduates differ dramatically, depending on their major.

Expanding opportunities for students to learn about entrepreneurship can address both these factors. First, it can protect students from a weak job market by giving them the tools they need to create their own jobs. Moreover, it can spur students to think about their college majors in new ways — empowering them to pursue their career objectives entrepreneurially, rather than relying on traditional pathways in their chosen fields.

Indeed, given persistent concerns about the value of a college degree, focusing on entrepreneurship is one way colleges can help assure students that the investment in their education is worth it, even in an uncertain economy.

To be sure, though, teaching entrepreneurship — and doing it well — means much more than adding a new course to the core curriculum, or organizing an initiative out of the business school. To the contrary, the entrepreneurial ethic needs to pervade every part of the university, in the following ways:

Experiential. Entrepreneurship can’t just be taught as an intellectual discipline — it has to be experienced. To truly learn it, students need opportunities to live the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur, including experiencing success and failure. As such, it’s important for universities to create venues that enable this real-world experience, such as entrepreneurship centers, venture incubators, or other similar services.

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Student-led. In addition, students should be given maximum opportunities to shape the priorities of a university’s entrepreneurship efforts. In particular, initiatives that enable students to develop their own innovative ideas and collaborate with each other — such as a student-run venture accelerator — can be especially popular and productive.

Comprehensive. Next, students should have the opportunity to experience the whole entrepreneurship process, from start to finish — including the idea generation and business plan stages, the development and investment stages, and, finally, the launch and implementation stages. In addition to knowledgeable faculty, universities can also deploy alumni with entrepreneurial or business experience to serve as mentors, coaches, and “critical friends” to students as they move through each stage of the process of developing their innovative ideas.

Social entrepreneurship. Moreover, social entrepreneurship — creating new ventures focused on addressing a pressing social problem or achieving a desired social change — can also be an important part of universities’ entrepreneurship efforts. Not only are social entrepreneurship initiatives well-liked by students, they’re also tremendously effective in helping students think about entrepreneurship in terms of impact, rather than just profit and loss.

Reverse innovation. Finally, college-based entrepreneurship initiatives also can highlight “reverse innovation” — that is, developing inexpensive, novel innovations for emerging markets, rather than high-end products for the domestic market. Given that America’s economic leadership in the future increasingly will depend on our ability to make inroads into global markets with technologies and services based on their needs, it makes good sense to focus on this approach when teaching students about entrepreneurship.

Promoting entrepreneurship education on more college campuses may not be easy, but it need not be costly, and it certainly is worthwhile. The next time we face a global recession, wouldn’t it be beneficial if more of our citizens are able to weather it more effectively because they have studied and experienced entrepreneurship in college?

As the celebrated historian James Truslow Adams wrote nearly a century ago, “There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living, and the other, how to live.” By expanding entrepreneurship education, colleges and universities can continue to inspire students to do the latter — while helping them even more with the former.

Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.
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