‘Entrepreneurs seem more like the brilliant drop-outs rather than the successful school and college achievers’ Can education be entrepreneurial?

Dr Saima Rana

This article is by Dr Saima Rana, who is CEO/ Principal at Gems World Academy and Chief Education Ambassador at the Varkey Foundation.

Entrepreneurialism and education make strange bedfellows – at least when you first start to think about them. Entrepreneurialism is about making something new happen, something that hasn’t been done before, and doing it at an angle to whatever ‘common sense’ thinking about the topic has had to offer up until then.

It’s counterintuitive in a very real sense. It breaks the mold. It transforms the narrative. It disrupts and breaks. It jumps outside of the box. It pivots to imaginative leaps and bounds and goes into action like a leap into the dark.

These iconoclastic features of entrepreneurial activity and character have become familiar to us through media representation. They have been symbolically grafted onto certain iconic figures who are presented as embodying all this in their personalities. We are invited to read off innovating brilliance from the antinomian character of the man or woman making the changes happen.

Thus a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk become emblematic of what we’re to expect from an entrepreneur: non-conformist, spontaneously brilliant, quirky and happy to stand up against the boring, risk-averse squares who fail to see as far and as deeply as they do, who won’t and can’t think their way out of the box.

And the trouble with these genius rebels for education, so it seems, is that they stand for everything schools can’t handle. Where do imagination, disruption and counterintuitive action fit when schools, colleges and universities emphasise planning, analysis and the careful weighting of risk?

Entrepreneurs seem more like the brilliant drop-outs rather than the successful school and college achievers – and of course Jobs was indeed such a drop out.

Disruptors and non-conformists

Traditional ways of thinking suggest that entrepreneurialism requires approaching problems in ways that are a complete anathema to modern schooling and education. The disrupters and non-conformists are the student’s schools punish, not reward, aren’t they?

Analysis is a key skill that is emphasized in any programme of study, as is the weighing up of potential success and failure. Recent curriculum reforms across the world have placed a huge premium on the so-called STEM subjects – sciences, maths and technology – at the expense of the humanities, sports and the arts where imagination and iconoclasm have often been nurtured and esteemed.

It would seem as if whilst the world of business is crying out for entrepreneurial expertise, education has moved in a different direction and downgraded the very things we want in our entrepreneurs. And in another ironical twist of this situation, it might seem that Business schools themselves are approaching entrepreneurialism in the wrong way, emphasising a planning routine that hardly captures the spirit of leaping into the dark.

I want to say that this picture is misleading. The traditional view of education as stifling innovation, imagination and so on is increasingly misleading. Our best schools, colleges and universities have moved a long way from that traditional view of meaningless and stultifying learning regimes. Our best contemporary schooling is keen to nurture those entrepreneurial virtues of disruption, imagination and non-conformity.

And it’s clearly no longer the case that these attributes can only be found in subjects like dance, drama, art, creative writing, sports and literature. Modern mathematics teaching at its best, for example, is highly creative, as are many of the elements of science and technology.

It hasn’t happened by removing all conventions, rules and systems, which might be what you’d say needed to happen for this to happen. This is what is so misleading about the conventional picture of the entrepreneurial process. To suggest the problem is with the conventions, rules and systems themselves per se is an error. Conventions, rules and systems have their place, and in certain contexts are important.

What is wrong with the traditional picture is that they are always useful, and with the entrepreneurial one that they never are. What goes wrong is when they have a sort of fearful, stifling authority. It’s this fearful authority that is the problem. Remove that, and then the entrepreneurial spirit can be free from any overarching constraint that might cramp innovation.

Look before you leap

Auden’s poem from which I quoted a moment ago is entitled ‘look before you leap’ and is about not always looking before you leap. In this there is of course an echo of the great Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’. Kierkegaard’s idea is that, because ‘One ought to be a riddle not only to others but also to oneself,’ we are required to act without knowing all the risks as an act of faith. And that carries over into contemporary entrepreneurial activity and education.

It is a bit of a stretch to connect entrepreneurial activity with that of radical Kierkegaardian existential choice, but in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review Ashish K Bhatia and Natalia Levina I detect a tentative connection. They describe how a Thai student responded to a shortage of low cost hand sanitizer’s and a New York shared commuting van businessman both refreshed their business models to respond to Covid 19.

Bhatia and Levina write that in neither case did the entrepreneur follow ‘… a typical business school approach when deciding to pivot their business: they didn’t conduct a long-term market analysis, develop a business plan, or weigh various alternative approaches.

In fact, had they done these analyses, they might have concluded that the short-term gains wouldn’t justify the retooling investment, or they might have gotten stuck trying to figure out how to estimate the duration of the pandemic or how soon global manufacturing might recover. Instead, they simply took action based on the resources at their disposal.’

In the parlance, they fired first, then aimed, reversing the usual approach. There’s a term to capture this: ‘effectation’, which captures the idea of ‘leveraging what we know, who we know, and who we are in order to take action.’ Bhatia and Levina note that traditionally business schools don’t teach this, and that in fact the taught models for entrepreneurialism are in direct conflict with it. By not anchoring their change of business direction in such securities as analysis, planning and weighing up alternatives, the decision becomes much more like the ‘leap in the dark’ of the existentialist than the staple diet taught in the business schools.

But just as models of learning in schools are developing to encourage imagination, creativity, disruption, iconoclasm, innovation and thinking outside the box across the curriculum, so too Business schools are beginning to recognize and teach effectation in their programmes. This is not about removing structures, conventions, analysis, routines, heuristics and formal procedures completely, but removing the fear that without them nothing positive can be done.

Sometimes great learning and great entrepreneurship requires, as Kierkegaard advised, that you just take a leap into the dark.