On Being Taught Entrepreneurship
Two weeks before I started at Babson, I had a long conversation with my mom about whether or not entrepreneurship could be taught. There was a great deal of back-and-forth, but all we came up with was, whether or not you can teach entrepreneurship, you can at least sell entrepreneurship education.
When I arrived, starry-eyed and excited to learn the answer to our question, I was keenly aware of what I did or didn’t learn. And one and a half semesters in I can tell you, with some reasonable amount of confidence, that you can’t teach entrepreneurship. Or rather, you can’t be taught entrepreneurship. Well, at the very least, Babson hasn’t taught us entrepreneurship. Yet.
Okay, pump the brakes. This is a broad and complex topic, and it’s likely that my classmates, not to mention alumni and future applicants, just had a knee-jerk, “WTF” reaction. So let me preface everything else I have to say with this: it’s my opinion that entrepreneurship is not, like what some people will tell you, an inborn quality you either have or don’t have. But neither is it something you can be taught in a few months of class. It’s a hybrid of the two. I would posit that being an entrepreneur is something you choose to do, based on what you can reasonably expect from yourself. Let me illustrate.
I visited Babson college in the winter of 2002, and knew immediately it was a place I had to be. More than that, though, it was the first time I put any thought toward the word “entrepreneur.” Hell, it was the first time I could spell entrepreneur.
When I graduated from college, I started my own company. Those few days at Babson had sparked something in me that grew for years; when it came time to launch, I did it blindly. While a mentor coached me on what it meant to be an entrepreneur (“wake up every day and create value for your clients”), I was mostly focused on creating exciting technology and learning about how to make a sale.
Was I solving a real pain point someone has? I have no idea. Maybe. What I was really doing was arrogantly thinking I could start a company and build it from nothing, with no experience and no idea how to do it. And if my idea was novel and amazing, I might have lucked out and wound up wildly successful. But it wasn’t, and I didn’t.
I’ve maintained since then that nothing I did makes me an entrepreneur. Does that sound like an entrepreneur? After a semester and a half here, to my ears, it doesn’t. And this is where it becomes a question of degree.
What I did makes me risk tolerant. At 21, I wasn’t afraid to forgo a salary (largely because I didn’t know what one was) and choose to start my own business instead. And that’s the part you largely can’t control: you’re either risk averse or risk tolerant, and if you’re risk averse, it’ll be difficult for you to be an entrepreneur.
Not that that’s something to be ashamed of! All it really means is that you’re a responsible person. My wife is risk averse (though she’s always been supportive of my own irresponsible decisions), and without her fiscal maturity, we probably wouldn’t stay afloat. But risk tolerance is definitely part of the equation. Part.
The other part of being an entrepreneur is what you learn at Babson: it’s developing an idea based on real, market-based information, building it, testing it, relentlessly rethinking it, and scaling it. The curriculum here is infused with this stuff, and that’s what you stand to learn with a Babson MBA.
It’s a combination of risk tolerance and skill that makes a person an entrepreneur. If you lack the former, you’re a great manager; if you lack the latter, you’re just reckless.
Many of my classmates have expressed unhappiness because they don’t think they’re entrepreneurs after a semester at school. And that’s because they’re not. If you’re not willing to take that risk head-on, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, because nothing Babson teaches you will make you an entrepreneur. They give you the tools to create an enterprise from scratch; the rest is on you.