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Monday, April 22, 2013

3 Key Insights about Entrepreneurship Education

Illinois' Entrepreneurship Forum had an exciting all-day agenda and was very well attended.
by Ann Abbott

At Illinois' Entrepreneurship Forum last Friday, I spoke on the social entrepreneurship panel. We had three minutes each to introduce ourselves and provide some "key insights."

A person in the front row held an iPad with a count-down timer, so you could not go over your allotted time. The pressure! (Actually, I like it when we are forced to be succinct and share the time with others.)

Here are the three key insights I shared.

  1. You must know your target market. This is old news, of course. But in my "Spanish & Entrepreneurship" course, my students have spent two semesters doing community service learning work with Spanish-speaking community members, two hours each week. Yet at this point they still have a very superficial knowledge of the target market's lived reality and perspectives. This isn't their fault, of course; they know much more about this target market than anyone else on our campus! But the point is that if you are going to offer products and services to a target market of which you are not a member, it takes more time and effort than you might imagine to really get to know them. This is, of course, especially true when your target market speaks a different language, is from a different national culture and belongs to a different socio-economic class than you.
  2. We need to teach professional ethics. I have wonderful, bright, energetic students who are committed to "doing good" in the world. And they do it! And in part, that is why they are drawn to social entrepreneurship. (I have said before, my students tend to be more drawn to the "social" part of social entrepreneurship than to the "entrepreneurship" part.) However, my work with students this semester has shown me that they have an under-developed sense of ethics. How is that possible? Because being a good person and wanting to "do good" are very different things than having a well-developed sense of professional ethics. In my one-week unit on ethics this semester, it became obvious to me that students cling to "rules" to guide their thinking about professional ethics, when the real test of ethics lies in the decisions you make when there are no rules. This needs to be taught somewhere in the curriculum.
  3. Liberal Arts students don't identify with the word "entrepreneur." I offer my "Spanish & Entrepreneurship" course each spring semester. It always fills--and quickly. But not because students think of themselves as entrepreneurs or are even interested in doing something entrepreneurial. My best guess is that students flock to this course because 1) it is an alternative to the more traditional literature and linguistics courses, 2) because they really enjoyed their community service learning work in the previous course ("Spanish in the Community"), and 3) they like the Tuesday/Thursday schedule. In any event, the goal of the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership was to infuse entrepreneurship education throughout the campus--not just in the business and engineering colleges. We have done that, yes. But there is still much more work to be done before students themselves are infused with a sense of entrepreneurial possibilities. 

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