Can You Teach Someone How To Grow a Business?

by | March 10, 2009

Can you teach someone to be an entrepreneur?

With more than 1,500 U.S. colleges offering some sort ofentrepreneurship classes -- by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's count-- someone certainly thinks so.

From a shallow backwater of graduate business education, whichtraditionally has prepared students for life in big corporations and theservice firms that feed off big corporations, classes and programs designedspecifically to encourage entrepreneurs have spread widely in recentyears.

Why? Partly to satisfy demand from young people who don't want to becorporate drones. And partly because many business and academic leadersbelieve the economy would benefit from having more and betterentrepreneurs. They're the people who start and build growth companies,boosting employment and wealth.

So, the Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City, Mo., is preparing togive a total of $25 million to a handful of universities that come up withthe most promising plan for entrepreneurship training. Sam Zell, Chicagobillionaire and dealer in distressed assets, and his now-deceased partner,Robert H. Lurie, gave $10 million to the University of Michigan to fund anInstitute for Entrepreneurial Studies bearing their names. And MichaelPolsky, a Ukrainian immigrant who made a fortune building independent powerplants, gave $7 million to the University of Chicago to fund a Center onEntrepreneurship bearing his name.

They must all believe you can teach entrepreneurship, right?

Not exactly. "As far as teaching purely entrepreneurial skills," saysMr. Polsky, also a Chicagoan, "I'm a believer -- you can't teach them."

Says Kauffman's president and chief executive officer, Carl Schramm: "Idon't think you can."

Adds Mr. Zell, trying to be encouraging: "It's not an all-or-nothingthing." His institute, he hopes, "helps people discover the talents theyhave."

Indeed, it is a widely held belief among established entrepreneurs thatthey possess an innate trait that spurred them to take risks, devote longhours and lead others to make a business a success, be it a start-up, aturnaround, an acquisition or some other business challenge. Asked if hisalma mater, Michigan, sparked or shaped his entrepreneurial dreams orsuccesses, Mr. Zell replies: "No. I never even thought about my schoolingand my business in the same vein."

Mr. Polsky, who graduated from Chicago's graduate school of business,says, "I certainly learned a lot of business skills" at graduate school.But he adds: "A lot of entrepreneurial skills are very personalskills."

So, why all the classes and programs? Because Mr. Zell, who is probably100% entrepreneur if such a thing could be measured, is right: It isn't anall-or-nothing thing. Many people have slight or strong entrepreneurialleanings -- they may measure 25% or 75% on the Zell meter -- that could bemore fully developed by training.

And for those who do measure 100%, entrepreneurship classes may drawthem to a business school. And, once there, they'll likely also learn moretraditional management skills that will help them, too.

Mr. Schramm, the Kauffman Foundation chief, believes the failure rateamong new businesses would be greatly reduced if driving ambition was morefrequently paired with nuts-and-bolts financial and managementtraining.

And Mr. Polsky offers another benefit of entrepreneurship training: Somepeople, not actually cut out for the risk and worry, will take the classesand, he says, "recognize that it's not for them." Amen, says Mr. Zell: "Thewhole bubble of the dot-com era created an awful lot of people whoperceived themselves as entrepreneurs."

The word entrepreneur (Webster's: from French entreprendre, toundertake: one who organizes, manages and assumes the risks of a businessor enterprise) seemed to crawl out of the woodwork in the 1980s.

Oddly enough, corporate types began embracing it as proof that theyweren't, well, corporate types. In the 1990s, it became increasinglyassociated with start-ups, a rather narrow field. And in some circles, Mr.Polsky says, "a lot of people equate entrepreneur as the guy who made a lotof money."

Mr. Zell lists these traits as entrepreneurial: high-energy level; theword failure is nonexistent; lonely; thinks about solutions even if it'snot his role; a leader; a certain amount of living on the edge; asignificant need for recognition; and most important, understands that ifyou ever have to take a vote, you've lost.

Those kinds of people, of course, aren't always hanging around thebusiness school. So, the Kauffman Foundation wants universities to broadenthe reach of their entrepreneurship programs.

"It's much more likely they're coming out of an engineering school thana business school," Mr. Schramm says. "And God help you if you're in thecollege of veterinarian science and you come across a new gene."

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