What are these two masked strangers that have professors and students alike scurrying towards an array of books and academic discourses?
Why do the world’s leading business schools climb over each other to attract, often with eye-watering salaries, the finest entrepreneurship professors for their classrooms? And why do MBA students fill their classrooms in such numbers?
According to the dictionary, an entrepreneur is “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative, innovation and risk.”
In 1985, the influential economist, Peter Drucker saw innovation as “the specific instrument of entrepreneurship, the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.”
As a result, many people are skeptical about the idea that one can learn how to be an entrepreneur or an innovator in a classroom. They point to Ford, Carnegie, Rockerfeller, Branson, Buffet, Gates, Jobs, and to any number of brilliant and wealthy non-MBA educated innovators.
But for Jordi Montserrat, professor of entrepreneurship at the St. Gallen MBA in Switzerland, such MBA modules on business school courses are not about “creating entrepreneurs out of nowhere.
"What we can do is reveal entrepreneurial spirit and gear the students with the right methods and the right approach to their objectives. It’s about teaching them the mindset that animates entrepreneurs.”
For Professor Montserrat, the essentials to teaching in his field are exposing the MBA participants to the challenges of starting a business and, what he calls, the ‘entrepreneurial mindset.’
“The entrepreneurial mindset is the ability to go out of your zone of comfort and develop a passion or find out how to execute that passion into a business.
"[Students] will run through business cases to make sure they’re being exposed to entrepreneurship with a concrete project and address all of the issues that are involved. At the end, are they ready to have the right to be an entrepreneur and build their own company?”
Professor Ed Roberts, head of the entrepreneurship and innovation program at MIT Sloan in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agrees that an innovative mindset may be something that people are born with but “effective entrepreneurs… have a higher than usual need for achievement, a willingness to share power and collaborate with others as part of getting ahead."
These, he argues, are skills that can and should be taught.
“Football coaches are not likely to be able to play as well as their star team members,” he says. “But they coach and help develop the skills and capabilities of their team. Tiger Woods is a spectacular golfer, but he has a coach and a trainer who help to enhance his winning ways.
“There are a series of skills that entrepreneurs do need, which are teachable. Launching a business involves considerations of finance, market, organization, strategy, technology, and intellectual property.
"The thing you can’t teach is prior experience. It doesn’t mean you are lecturing that ‘this way is great and this way is bad,’ but you are exposing alternative models and the outcomes of them. In entrepreneurship, by being able to say how different companies have approached different types of issues where there may not be a clear answer as to what’s best, you’re doing some mind expanding. That can be done as a part of teaching entrepreneurship.”
Furthermore, entrepreneurship classes are not about sitting in a classroom waiting for inspiration to come, explains Peter Frölich, a student at The St. Gallen MBA.
“The curriculum is very nicely structured so that you can choose the electives that fit you. You have hi-tech venturing, you have business plan writing, you have entrepreneurship, so all these courses help you a lot to get the connections to get the knowledge to start your own company.”
And given the high level of subscription on such electives at business schools around the world, it seems that entrepreneurship, as a taught subject at MBA level, is not going to fade in popularity any time soon.