It had always been a dream while studying entrepreneurship as an undergraduate to succeed in business and return to teach the next generation of students someday. For me that dream came true, and the end of this semester has provided time to reflect on my impact. Innovation and entrepreneurship are exciting areas for exploration from everyone, from incoming undergraduates to tenured faculty.
No matter the discipline, everyone in academia should be excited to advance entrepreneurship to support startups in their community and across the United States. But while I enjoy reading books on innovation and entrepreneurship, the thought of having my students purchase textbooks to learn to be more entrepreneurial is not an approach that ever worked for me, and my classes require no textbooks.
Textbooks for innovation or entrepreneurship cannot give a formula for success
Steve Blank, author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany, founder of the Lean LaunchPad, and designer of National Science Foundation I-Corps (NSF I-Corps) and Hacking for Defense classes, is famous for telling students to “Get Out of the Building!”
This philosophy resonates with me as a student and instructor because it drives me to discover what separates successful entrepreneurs from everyone else. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, funds were tight and textbooks were much less of a priority than ensuring my pantry had at least a pack of ramen and a can of spam for my next meal. It is amazing how being a hungry entrepreneur, both literally and metaphorically, is a great motivator to attend classes and maximize office hours with an instructor.
The answers entrepreneurs seek are not found in textbooks
The mindset shift from looking for answers in a book to asking questions of others allows a natural mentorship to form between a professor and a student eager to start a business. This type of guidance helped set the stage for both my success as a student and an entrepreneur. The lessons I learned during office hours were much more valuable than anything I learned from a textbook. These interactions with my previous professors helped me become a better instructor. Talking to anyone can be difficult at first, but building a relationship showed that my instructors had compassion for my financial situation and enjoyed seeing me in class every day. As an instructor, it is energizing to see students eager to learn and apply those lessons to the student-led ventures they are building, every minute they are not in the classroom.
Being open to feedback in entrepreneurial endeavors sets the stage for success
As entrepreneurs, we all feel that we should know everything about our ventures and what it will take to succeed, but that is rarely the case. We are always learning by testing a hypothesis and striving to discover what we do not know. Innovation and entrepreneurship start by determining the current state, the status quo and building upon a foundation of discovery made by others. Suppose we want to advance any innovative endeavor. In that case, we need to be willing to accept that our assumptions are likely wrong and speak to everyone we can to test a hypothesis, then validate or invalidate what we thought as we pivot towards something that people are willing to buy.
Textbooks do not contribute to building a community
Instead of textbooks, teachers should try experiential learning opportunities. For example, there is a learning opportunity called customer discovery, which empowers teams to distill a dozen interviews and present their findings to the entire class every week. If teams cannot complete interviews, then it is impossible to validate a hypothesis. Everyone is accountable for making customer discovery a priority and required to present what they learned.
It is wonderful to see more entrepreneurial educators skip the textbooks and engage students to build a community. The ultimate experiential learning opportunity starts with talking with customers, so it is time for entrepreneurial educators to end the required reading on launching a new venture.
Mike Seper is an associate director at the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Washington University.
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