Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught In A Classroom?

Mar 19, 2012

Is entrepreneurship a skill that can be taught in the classroom, or one you can only develop in the real world?

While education proponents argue that you can instill lessons about running a company just like you can teach people general skills in business, critics believe successfully managing a company requires skills that a person can only develop in the real world. The Wall Street Journal asked experts on both sides of the debate to share their insights on whether or not entrepreneurship can be taught in a classroom.

YES: Learn About the Pitfalls

Dr. Noam Wasserman, professor of entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, believes that we should take the lessons about what works and what doesn’t, analyze and organize them, and then teach them, just as we do with engineers, doctors, and lawyers. While early entrepreneurial education was largely based on case studies and anecdotes, academics have introduced a new level of research on what leads to success or failure. This data can help teach founders to avoid common hazards, such as underestimating the resources and time that it takes to get everything in place when launching a startup business.

Wasserman recognizes that there are elements of entrepreneurship that can’t be taught, mostly elements involving people skills. But he points out that everybody has to develop people skills, not just entrepreneurs. Citing that nearly two-thirds of high potential start-ups fail due to tensions with the founding and executive team, Wasserman believes that educating founders on these types of pitfalls may be able to increase success rates.

No: The Best Class Is Real Life

Victor W. Hwang, co-author of The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley and managing director of T2 Venture Capital in Silicon Valley, firmly believes that entrepreneurship cannot be taught in a regular classroom. “Why? Entrepreneurship is messy. For an entrepreneur, there are rarely clear-cut right or wrong decisions day to day. Real life gives entrepreneurs the ability to better make those kinds of judgment calls,” he told Wall Street Journal.

Hwang believes comparisons to traditional business education don’t hold up because many critical entrepreneurial skills, like understanding people, can’t be fully developed in the span of a semester or even a few years. He is aware of the recent boom in entrepreneurship education, but says that teaching entrepreneurs to avoid failure may actually cause harm to them. Entrepreneurs hone their craft through experimentation and collaboration, and helping entrepreneurs teach themselves is a better idea than trying to teach them in a traditional sense.

Click here for the full debate.

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