Adventures in Entrepreneurship

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Interest in entrepreneurship has grown tremendously over the last couple of decades, and it is now knocking hard on higher education’s door. Its popularity (and I would say, need) forces us to grapple with how we’re going to think about and teach entrepreneurship.

The very term ‘entrepreneurship’ stirs both hearts and minds. The meanings it elicits can lead to miscommunication and confusion; and the feelings it evokes, especially the negative ones, can lead to conflict and exclusion. For me, one of the central tenets of the entrepreneurial experience is adventure — both the concept itself, and the need to provide opportunities to experience adventure in entrepreneurship education.

In French economist Jean-Baptiste Say’s Treatise on Political Economy, there is a footnote that provides an early definition of entrepreneur–with the English translation being akin to “adventurer.” This reminded me of a talk given by Steve Blank, where he mentioned that venture capitalists got rid of the “ad” in adventure because it smacked of too much risk!

For Say, the adventurer was an important figure in the economy, a concept generated in response to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and the apparent absence of a central economic force. The idea being that adventurers sought opportunities to realign resources and capital with market gaps to help bring about economic disruptions.

In the context of Say and Smith, adventurer (entrepreneur) is about creating monetary value. But today, it’s more than that. When it comes to education, I think it’s helpful for students to focus more on what it means to embark on an adventure. 

Bringing Adventure Into the Educational Experience

When I think of adventure, I think of undertaking something new, risky, and discomfiting. Although the traditional school experience exposes students to many things they don’t know, and even the creation of new knowledge, it all still occurs within a context–the traditional curriculum and classroom. And this predictable environment can often be the antithesis of adventure and learning.

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Students have been trained for many years and continue to be trained in college to 1) receive from instructors problems to be solved, 2) receive or ask for the necessary information or algorithms for solving those problems, and then 3) learn the material (many times memorizing for the short-term) to use in taking a test that is assumed to gauge some type of performance.

As education scholar Roger Schank notes, many times the problems and information that are given to students are provided “just in case” (“you might need to know X in the future”), whereas in the real world, information is gathered by individuals “just in time,” as learning occurs through trial and error and as individuals give shape to evolving diagnoses and solutions to messy or ill-defined problems.

An adventure, even on a small scale, requires that students look for their own problems to solve (and have a sense of what makes something worth solving). This makes education new and different from what they have experienced for so many years. In addition, by searching for problems, exposing their ideas to others, and putting some skin in the game (time usually, but also money), they take on risk. By pitching their ideas to others, trying to recruit others to join their journey, and putting themselves in novel social situations, they approach discomfort and start to get used to it. It is also in such social situations that they can validate the value of their ideas and, if necessary, adjust.

Not all adventures will create monetary value (there are many not-for-profit ventures). Michigan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem focuses on creating engaging educational experiences for students so that they are more comfortable undertaking new initiatives. We aim to plant the seed of adventure. And through our campus-wide minor in entrepreneurship, we provide students those skills that will help them learn and develop their initiatives so they can really see them for what they’re worth.

Most importantly, all students — from musicians to health advocates to engineers to athletes to scientists – have the potential to weave adventure (entrepreneurship) into what they do. And we’re hoping we all can be a little more adventurous, both in how we educate, and in how we think about entrepreneurship and where we identify its potential. 

By Innovate Blue Director Oscar Ybarra

Photo courtesy of Julia Caesar on Unsplash.

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