Claudia Hepburn, Financial Post · Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011
Last week’s announcement by the Harper government is making headlines of the fact that high-impact entrepreneurs are critical to Canada’s future prosperity. While the need for more successful Canadian entrepreneurs is widely accepted, what’s controversial is whether or not education can play an effective role in their development. Can Canada’s answer to Mark Zuckerberg be fostered through a formal program? Can high-impact entrepreneurs be taught?
Popular wisdom says no: Entrepreneurs are born, not made. Google “entrepreneurial personality” and you will find pages of links to tests designed to tell you whether or not you are a born entrepreneur or just a regular Canadian: deferential to authority, better suited to a life of regular paycheques, with no innate hunger for either recognition or risk.
If the universe can be so easily divided into entrepreneurs and the rest of us, chances are that university-based entrepreneurship classes appeal more to those good students with a curiosity about the subject than to real entrepreneurs. The next Ted Rogers would rather be building a start-up than reading about one. If this is true, then perhaps entrepreneurship programs are a waste of resources.
Another view, on the far side of the nature versus nurture continuum, is one made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book, Outliers. His neat theory that 10,000 hours of practice separates superstars from the rest of us gave headlines to the adage “practice makes perfect.” It’s not the innate business gene that made my grandfather, Garfield, and two uncles, Galen and Garry Weston, such successful business leaders but the fact that all three were thrown into the business trenches early by their own fathers, and forced to practise business leadership from unusually young ages. According to this view, teaching entrepreneurship in class is also a waste of time, because the school of hard knocks is the only school that counts.
Lying between these two extremes is the view that entrepreneurs can be nurtured, and that a society that values innovation and new business formation should form a coherent strategy to cultivate them.
Here are six strategies for nurturing high-impact entrepreneurs:
1. Identify potential early By the age of 20 most of us have not taken a lead in a start-up, but many successful entrepreneurs have. We need to focus more attention on these early bloomers and focus more resources on helping their professional development.
2. Expose them to role models Few young people have the opportunity to meet great leaders. It is more difficult to pattern yourself after someone you have never met than after someone with whom you have shared stories of personal failure, values and motivation.
3. Teach them the basics High-impact entrepreneurs have a toolkit of practical skills (sales, negotiations, establishing value, etc.) and an appreciation for how international events and economic cycles will impact their business opportunities. These things can and should be taught to young people with demonstrated interest and potential in building internationally significant businesses.
4. Make them practise Highimpact entrepreneurs are often serial entrepreneurs whose confidence, skills and insight are the result of those many years of practice. Our education system is not designed to give young people start-up experience, nor does our society give adequate credit for the experience gained through it, and we need to create more opportunities for them to build ideas into organizations, for-profit or not.
5. Mentor them One caring adult can make all the difference in a young person’s development, and this is as true for budding entrepreneurs as it is for anyone else. Experienced entrepreneurs and business leaders may take as much pleasure from the relationship as those being mentored.
6. Encourage entrepreneurial networks A network of like-minded peers can be the greatest gift of all. Young entrepreneurs from every Canadian region and from every discipline will profit from a lifetime of peer mentoring if connected in a meaningful way to trusted and respected peers.
The cost of assuming that great entrepreneurs develop by accident is high. The opportunity to bring the best of our business and academic resources to bear on our next generation of entrepreneurs is great. If Canada’s own successful entrepreneurs and business leaders take this challenge seriously, Canada could become a leader in the education of high-impact entrepreneurs. Canada’s Year of the Entrepreneur could then mark the start of something significant for Canadian prosperity.
— Claudia Hepburn is executive director of The Next 36, a new national program that aims to transform Canada’s most promising undergraduates into high-impact entrepreneurs, and recently selected its first 36 young entrepreneurs.