Why a Degree Isnt the Secret to Entrepreneurial SuccessI recently spoke to a group of students at a technical college in Georgia. These students all possess a bachelor’s degree, but like many highly educated Americans, they are struggling to find employment. They are participating in a program at Southern Polytechnic State University called Fast Track to Employment. The program is designed to inform unemployed professionals with a bachelor’s degree or higher of new, expanding industries and technologies in hopes of getting them over the unemployment hump.
Groups like this have asked me numerous times in the past year to speak about what it takes to get a job today, and what it means to be an entrepreneur. In preparation for these appearances, I think through my own entrepreneurial journey. I have realized that having or not having a college degree has not been the secret to my success.
As the world increasingly looks for a workforce built on intellectual property and creativity, it’s important to consider the merits of our educational system. There is growing evidence that entrepreneurship and small business ownership characterize the way to economic prosperity. This raises the question: Can entrepreneurship be taught? As a result, I am asked more and more frequently how I “did it.”
By reviewing my success and those of fellow entrepreneurs, I can make the following observations:
College Is Not About a Degree
My choice of colleges was very calculated. I attended North Georgia College not because of its military program or because I thought I would get the best computer science degree possible. I attend North Georgia because I knew that it had a co-op program at IBM and I wanted to work at IBM. At the ripe age of 18, I found myself working on a support desk at IBM, gaining experience that still serves me well today. In fact, my first startup experience was with a company that had been founded by ex-IBM staff.
Other entrepreneurs have used their college years to meet the people who would eventually be their business partners. Facebook, Microsoft, reddit, WordPress and Yahoo! were all conceived in college dorm rooms.
Colleges often promote the network of fellow graduates as one of their selling points. We should instead consider these important college years a method for finding opportunities to jump-start careers.
Take a Gap Year – Now or Later
I have a teenage daughter who will be eligible for college soon. I wouldn’t be unhappy if she chose to take a gap year. A gap year is a year spent between high school and college for traveling and living a little. In fact, I encourage her to take it. I have spoken with many entrepreneurs who did just that and gained an appreciation for an aspect of life, a culture or tapped into a passion that ultimately drove their entrepreneurial spirit and their career.
Some entrepreneurs take these gap years later in their career and find it leads them in entirely new directions. The founder of charity: water, Scott Harrison, served two years on Mercy Ships, which led him from New York City nightlife titan to founder of one of the most successful and meaningful charities in the world today.
Skip the MBA
Too much education or experience can actually kill your entrepreneurial spirit. I have worked with many people whose post-secondary degrees cost them the ability to take a risk. If they couldn’t model a business idea or see it tangibly working, they were afraid to jump. As I mature, I know that I weigh risk/reward much more than I did in the past.
Wesley Wamp, who has the unique designation of being the youngest person to run for U.S. House of Representatives, made the following statement on my radio show: “Youth is a specialized skillset that you only possess for a short period of time.” The younger you are, the more likely you are to try something radical and the more time you have to recover from and learn from your mistakes.
As we continue to determine how to recover from the recent economic disruption and high unemployment rate, I submit that we can no longer rely on the longstanding tenets of our educational system and the proven path to prosperity. The world has changed dramatically and our education system must catch up.
I have spent the last decade observing how marketing misses the mark in targeting its customers. While this is unfortunate and leads to missed opportunity, I am more concerned that our education system is woefully behind the needs of companies and is doing a disservice to our students by encouraging education for education’s sake.
Eric V. Holtzclaw is CEO and founder of Laddering Works, a marketing and product strategy firm. Holtzclaw’s weekly radio show, The “Better You” Project, shines a spotlight on entrepreneurs’ business journeys.
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