While society innovates, our K-12 schools have remained stagnant. As a result, they are not graduating the doers, makers and cutting-edge thinkers the world needs. Certainly, some public and private schools are modernizing – having students work in groups to solve problems, learn online and integrate science with the arts. But most institutions do not teach what should be the centerpiece of a contemporary education: entrepreneurship, the capacity to not only start companies but also to think creatively and ambitiously.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman advocates for inspiring young people to create the companies that will provide long-lasting employment for the country’s citizens. Because the jobs on which 61-year-old Friedman’s own generation relied are no longer available, he advocates for having students graduate high school “innovation ready” – meaning that along with their mortarboards, they receive the critical-thinking, communication and collaboration skills that will help them invent their own careers.
Entrepreneurship education benefits students from all socioeconomic backgrounds because it teaches kids to think outside the box and nurtures unconventional talents and skills. Furthermore, it creates opportunity, ensures social justice, instills confidence and stimulates the economy.
Schools need not teach these skills on their own. They can reach out to the myriad organizations that help teachers in low-income areas teach entrepreneurship, or take advantage of initiatives that pair kids of all ages with science and engineering experts across the country so they can engage in hands-on projects.
Because entrepreneurship can, and should, promote economic opportunity, it can serve as an agent of social justice. Julian Young, 29, was a drug dealer facing a 15-year prison term when a mentor told him he was an entrepreneur. Years later, Young is the founder and executive director of The Start Center for Entrepreneurship, an Omaha-based organization that helps women and minorities launch businesses.
Just as Young’s entrepreneurial instinct helped him escape the school-to-prison pipeline to become a successful business owner, so too can it help other young people at risk tap into their own unrealized talents.The nonprofit Prison Entrepreneurship Program pairs prisoners with top-level mentors in a curriculum that makes them entrepreneurs. The program’s less-than-10 percent recidivism rate lends credence to the argument that gaining business savvy reduces the likelihood that prisoners will end up back in jail.
Furthermore, entrepreneurship has historically spurred minorities, women and immigrants to create better lives for themselves and their families. Currently, minorities own 15 percent of all U.S. businesses, accounting for $591 billion in revenues. Women are starting businesses at one-and-a-half times the national average and currently own 40 percent of all businesses, producing nearly $1.3 trillion in revenues.
Immigrants are another inspiring example. Considering that members of this group own 18 percent of businesses, generating more than $775 billion in revenues, Friedman advises young entrepreneurs to imagine that they themselves are immigrants, because “new immigrants are paranoid optimists.”
While immigrants who start businesses know they might fail, they have nothing to lose, Friedman points out. They are risk-takers and they are persistent – both vital traits for entrepreneurs.
Because entrepreneurship fosters these kinds of character traits, it promises to benefit all students—not just those from low-income backgrounds. According to Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, students who attend private schools are not world changers. The reason: These schools offer affluent parents “a high probability of nonfailure.”
In other words, affluent backgrounds often do not encourage kids to take risks and make mistakes, which are necessary for cultivating ingenuity. Perhaps if students were to study entrepreneurship, they would be forced to think outside the box, to fail and to persist – experiences that would inspire them to become creative, inventive and innovative.
Additionally, entrepreneurship embraces talents and skills that teachers in conventional classrooms might otherwise penalize. “Entrepreneurs are anomalies; they don’t fit in,” Young says. They may not be “book smart” but thrive if given an opportunity to utilize their people smarts and risk-taking skills, he says.
Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, is a good illustration. Branson often recalls how he was a bad student. And serial entrepreneur Bo Peabody similarly points out that entrepreneurs tend to be B students – good at a variety of things, but not stellar at one thing in particular. It’s this ability to think broadly that allows these young people to complete the variety of tasks necessary in starting companies, Peabody says.
This famed venture capitalist’s belief that entrepreneurs have limited attention spans is echoed by Anthony Pensiero, Pensiero, president of Pennwood Technology Group, says he has attention-deficit disorder and that because he was never medicated for it, he was able to channel his considerable energies into the endeavors that pointed him on the path to success.
Conversely, a prescription to the ADHD-drug Ritalin set Young on a destructive course until he met the mentor who told him he was an entrepreneur.
More reasons for entrepreneurship education include the likelihood that it will promote social and emotional well-being. Entrepreneurship might even correlate with happiness more than do other categories of business endeavors, according to a 2012 study of 11,000 MBA graduates from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
According to Wharton professor Ethan Mollick, who co-authored the study, the graduates studied who started their own businesses were for the most part “significantly happier” than others due to perceived greater control over their own destiny. It’s no wonder, then, that well-known business schools such as Wharton, Columbia and Harvard are ramping up their entrepreneurship offerings: Student demand for these courses is on the rise.
Additionally, many business students are choosing social entrepreneurship – doing well by doing good. According to the nonprofit Bridgespan Group, between 2003 and 2009 the number of social-benefit course offerings at top business schools more than doubled, on average. Matthew Paisner, who founded Altru-Help, a website that connects users with local volunteer opportunities, says he’s noticed growing “philanthropic virtue” among Millennials. Millendials, Paisner says, tend to favor working for socially responsible companies and don’t see profit and purpose as mutually exclusive.
There is more good news here: Entrepreneurship education is making its way into some schools, thanks to forward-thinking people and organizations. Certain programs already encourage students to start their own companies as early as high school; and certain schools are working with venture capitalists and angel investors to fund kids’ startups. Other schools have made entrepreneurship courses graduation requisites.
Boldface names in business are signing up: This past January, AOL co-founder Steve Case and former Hewlett-Packard chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina headed a panel of businesspeople and academics, in which they called for the creation of a national competition in which teams of K-12 students would pitch their start-up ideas to judges.
Young entrepreneurs are making an impact as well. Emily Raleigh, a junior at Fordham University, is the founder and CEO of The Smart Girls Group, which “seeks to unite, inspire, and empower the next generation of influential women.” What started as a digital magazine, when Raleigh was a senior in high school, now consists of 12 distinct brands ranging from newsletters to online classes to a network of professional adult women.
Maya Penn, a 13-year-old TED talker, sells her own knit scarves and hats online, and donates a percentage of her proceeds to nonprofits. Sixteen-year-old prodigy Erik Finman, who recalls a teacher telling him to drop out and work at McDonald’s, founded the video-chat tutoring program Botangle and the startup Intern for a Day, which connects companies with potential interns who work for a day on a project that constitutes a vocational audition.
Given developments like these, traditional K-12 education – the old “chalk and talk," memorization and regurgitation and bubbling in correct answers – seems like the very nemesis of innovation.
As Albert Einstein once said, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”