I recently returned from the British Council sponsored conference on Entrepreneurship in Higher Education in Boston. The conference, which featured a variety of speakers from both the U.S. and from across the pond not only explored the role of Entrepreneurship in higher education, but also juxtaposed the British and U.S. approach to teaching entrepreneurship. The bottom line from the conference was that the U.S. is still the undisputed global leader in entrepreneurship education and the U.K. and the rest of the world still have some catching up to do, in particular in regards to creating the right campus environment for fostering entrepreneurship.
The conference featured many thought provoking sessions such as “Entrepreneurship vs. Internationalization” and “Why universities must promote entrepreneurship or die!” However, as someone who has been designing and managing entrepreneurship focused programs for the past three years, the sessions that resonated with me the most focused on teaching entrepreneurship and “Creating curriculum for the entrepreneurship discipline.”
So, for anyone interested in learning how to design a successful entrepreneurship program, here are some essential tips that I picked up:
- Base your program on experiential learning: During the presentation, both Caroline Daniels from Babson College and Tom Cannon from University of Liverpool pointed out that entrepreneurship can only be taught through hands on projects where participants create their own ventures and participate in live case studies. I couldn’t agree more! As the program manager of the Summer Entrepreneurship Program (SEP), I focus the program’s curriculum on experiential and applied learning. During five intensive weeks of training, participants learn the steps involved in venture creation—from ideation to market research and competition assessment to feasibility analysis and sales— by working on their own business ideas. Along the way, they are mentored and network with successful entrepreneurs, angel investors and venture capitalists. So, I and the rest of SEP’s faculty, staff and mentors are simply entrepreneurship learning enablers. We provide the right framework and design the right type of experiences, but the learning happens only when participants “get dirty” and start working on their ventures.
- Emphasize the value of failure: As Northeastern University’s President, Joseph Aoun shared: “Real entrepreneurs wear their failures as badges of honor.” It is extremely important to make participants understand that in entrepreneurship, failure is a necessary evil. You can only move forward and succeed by taking calculated risks, experimenting, failing and learning from your mistakes. In fact, one of the required books for SEP is “The Lean Startup” by Eric Reis. The book stipulates that entrepreneurs should focus not on writing perfect business plans, but rather on finding ways to accelerate their learning and validate customer demand for their product or service. Accordingly, instead of focusing on perfecting a venture plan for their ideas in a purely academic setting, SEP participants are encouraged to come up with a Minimal Viable Product (MVP)—a far from perfect, but easily testable concept, service or product– and then test it with real potential customers. As a result, participants experience a series of failures, but along the way they gain a lot of useful information, which helps them to continuously improve their service or product.
- Create the right entrepreneurship ecosystem and community: Judith Cone from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill talked about the importance of creating an entrepreneurship culture on campus, where students feel continually supported in their pursuit of entrepreneurship and innovation. In the case of SEP, a short term program for budding Bulgarian entrepreneurs who after their intensive five week training return to Bulgaria, creating a supportive entrepreneurship ecosystem meant keeping the SEP alumni working together. This is how the Association of Bulgarian Leaders and Entrepreneurs (ABLE) was born. Entirely managed by program alumni, ABLE’s mission is to develop an active civil society and entrepreneurial culture in Bulgaria. So far, ABLE has launched the “Entrepreneur’s Library”—the first and only library dedicated to entrepreneurship in Bulgaria. More importantly, ABLE members organize monthly talks and mixers with Bulgarian entrepreneurs as they continue to support each other.
- Set realistic expectations and be patient: To paraphrase conference speaker and social entrepreneur Kyle Westaway, in this era of smartphones, Facebook and Twitter, we are constantly distracted and constantly seeking immediate gratification and instant results—but really good ideas need time to mature and germinate before they are turned into exciting ventures. Exactly! Ideally, we want all of the participants in our entrepreneurship programs to launch successful businesses upon completion of their learning experience.
However, building a successful venture takes time. Today, three years after we launched the program, SEP’s return on investment is clear—there are already several SEP alumni who have started their own ventures. For example, Dobromir Ivanov (SEP 2011) and Demir Tonchev (SEP 2010), who met at an ABLE event, founded Stigni.bg, the first online portal for comparing fares and booking bus travel in Bulgaria. Spasiyana Apostolova (SEP 2012) and her brother Dimitar just launched Blocsocks, a social entrepreneurship venture, which aims to preserve Bulgarian customs by enabling elderly Bulgarians from impoverished rural communities to sell their unique handmade wool crafts globally. Moreover, Evelin Velev (SEP 2011) is one of the founders of Usefulatnight—a mobile application, which enables users to discover trendy night spots and cool locations in real time. Usefulatnight recently won 30,000 Euros from LAUNCHhub and is one of the start-ups selected for the LAUNCHhub incubator.
Over the next three years, as the SEP alumni network continues to grow, I am confident that the number of companies started by SEP graduates will grow significantly.