Four thoughts after Global Entrepreneurship Week (and ISBE and the National Enterprise Education Conference).

It’s that time of year again. Another Global Entrepreneurship Week has passed, and enterprise educators are reflecting on the 1589 activities that took place across the country (and the world). The GEW brand celebrates entrepreneurship through a week of ‘unleashing ideas’, ‘start up battles’ and changing the world.  Some will already be planning their programme for next year and some may be scratching their heads and asking: ‘What was that all about?’ Whatever your position, it’s undeniable that such sharp focus on entrepreneurship throws up all kinds of questions, possibilities and challenges. As well as GEW, the last three weeks included a National Enterprise Education Conference run by Enterprise Village and the 38th annual conference for the Institute of Small Business and Entrepreneurship in Glasgow. Though the conferences stood 400 miles apart and accommodated educators from different phases and diverging terminology, common ground could be heard during the intense conversation of delegates from the two events. It’s a fitting tribute to both to try and round up some takeaways whilst a spotlight shines on enterprise and entrepreneurship in the wake of Global Entrepreneurship Week.

  1. Who wants to be an entrepreneur? Part 1…

Ivor Tiefenbrun started his keynote to an audience of academics at ISBE, an entrepreneurship conference, with the declaration: ‘I don’t like the word entrepreneur.’ This is despite the fact that Ivor is the founder and chairman of Linn Products, a business he started in 1972 and which is recognised as an industry benchmark in terms of high quality audio. His journey at Linn began when (dissatisfied with his stereo, and, with an unfinished mechanical engineering course behind him), he set about creating a top quality record player. What made Linn unique was the control over every aspect of production, and an obsessive attention to quality. So it was curious that someone with such a track record in product and company building rejected, or at least felt unease about, the label of entrepreneur. When I ask teachers what they think of when they hear the word ‘entrepreneur’ the initial response, 9.99 times out of ten, is: ‘Alan Sugar’. This sort of stereotype might be a reason why someone as entrepreneurial as Ivor rejects the label. Ivor’s take on company management (a pretty flat structure, working in ‘family size’ teams, putting people first) seems at odds with the on-tap egos, arguments and ‘you’re fired!’ shenanigans of the TV show. Maybe, ten series of The Apprentice later, the label ‘entrepreneur’ needs a detox.

2) Who wants to be an entrepreneur? Part 2…

Interestingly, and perhaps linked in some way, in the Enterprise Education track at ISBE, Professor Laura Galloway shared longitudinal research where she and colleagues revisited students who had been surveyed ten years previously. Given that a criticism of entrepreneurship education research is the dearth of empirical and longitudinal research, the idea was simple but effective: use the same survey given to a cohort of students in 2005 to survey a cohort in 2015 and compare the results. Result: two snapshots of entrepreneurial perceptions and ambitions, a decade apart. Interestingly, though students reported a perceived increase in their entrepreneurial skills, their entrepreneurial ambitions went down. They wanted to be employed in the public sector and charities more than they wanted to run a business. The study was a quantitative snapshot and, as Prof Galloway pointed out, participant’s experiences may have been shaped by graduating in a recession and being burdened with massive student debt as much as any courses which they might have experienced. But she also acknowledged that over the last ten years, the profile of entrepreneurs has never been so high. Responses to survey questions around ‘enterprise culture’ reflected that growth. Participants were more likely to say they had a family member, friend or partner running a business, and were significantly more likely to have experienced enterprise education before university. Prof Galloway concluded that the findings have important implications for research (What’s the real driver of entrepreneurship? What’s the value of entrepreneurship in other employment contexts), and teaching (What are we trying to achieve? What are the implications for pedagogy?).

3) The winner takes it all, the loser standing small?

Which brings me to a third thought, which may be a bit off message in the afterglow of GEW. It’s hard to start challenging widely held views about established enterprise education models, but I’d argue that we don’t know nearly enough about the effects that different approaches have on how young people think and do.  The last three weeks will have seen students of all ages undertake a blizzard of business competitions and challenges. It’s the ubiquitous enterprise education model – relatively easy to understand and deliver, plenty of off-the-shelf resources for educators, and participants apparently having to use and develop their enterprise skills through the process. But do we really know what the effect is? Imagine learning anything else through a model where you do a day-long challenge (or maybe longer if you’re lucky) and at the end of it 90-95% of the room or teams end up as (implicitly) losers. How do we know that what young people aren’t actually learning is that there’s no point in thinking about running a business because they won’t be successful at it? There’s a big difference between reporting you’ve used your team work skills, or thought of a business idea, or had fun, and then what meaning you take from the whole experience. There is an argument that it’s good to weed out over-optimism and put off those who wouldn’t have the skills to lead and grow a business. Perhaps that would be a tolerable view if business competitions were designed and delivered only to identify and support these unicorns of business. But they’re not. Business competitions and challenges are delivered in all phases of education now, from primary upwards, and this is likely to grow with recent moves to develop ‘Enterprise for All.’ Many young people, unicorns or otherwise, will have to make work for themselves at some point if they want to have a job, or if they want to have some job satisfaction. Learning that business ‘isn’t for them’ by repeatedly losing in enterprise challenges might have the same effect that competitive sport can have on pupils who don’t excel – they don’t want to, or think they should, take part.

4) Conscripts, mercenaries or volunteers…

It was great to see, after a few years of dwindling interest in enterprise education nationally, a good and enthusiastic turnout to the Enterprise Village conference at BIS in London. Amongst the sense of buoyancy and hopefulness, there was a theme in side discussions with teachers who described the struggle they can have ‘selling’ enterprise education to senior leadership and colleagues back at school. There were some teachers, tasked as ‘Enterprise Champions’, feeling as if they were at the base camp of Everest. Yes it feels exciting, but not a little lonely and dangerous. Having to ‘get colleagues on board’ always comes up in ‘embedding enterprise’ discussions, dependent as it is on wide buy in that crosses subjects and topics. Such an endeavour requires commitment and loyalty, and is achieved over time. In my experience, the best advocates in the early days are volunteers, the early adopters who help develop and test practice and have techniques and good news to share. Nothing will scupper the development of enterprise culture like forcing people into a role and then not giving them the resources to undertake it. Ivor Tiefenbrun had a nugget in this department – when everything is going great it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a conscript, mercenary or volunteer….but if things get difficult, you’ll know the difference. Interestingly, he attributed the success of Linn not to technology and innovation, but to people. ‘Anyone can spot a problem or an opportunity,’ he said. ‘I wanted my company to look after suppliers, customers and its people.’ He called the way people worked together the only source of sustainable competitive advantage: ‘We had great people who want to work together to build something more than they could alone, or by working with other people.’ No hard sell there, just the incredible pull of an important, shared endeavour. Sounds like a good strategy…