A new Pew Research Center survey finds that two-thirds of the public believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor. As much as we’ve talked about the 99 percent this winter, little ink has been spilled about what kinds of entrepreneurial efforts might actually enable economic mobility. But US policy makers and their European counterparts are increasingly viewing entrepreneurship as one of the possible solutions to our current economic ills, as evidenced by the creation of the European Institute for Innovation and Technology and the White House’s StartUp America Partnership last year. Both aim to spur innovation and entrepreneurship.
A remarkable convergence is emerging: as our economies falter, policymakers are embracing entrepreneurship as a potential solution, and the future of our workforce—the young—are eager to get on board. But how will they get there?
Universities are the missing link in entrepreneurship. We are uniquely suited to inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs and filling the sorely needed entrepreneurial pipeline with talented young visionaries eager to impact the world. Universities have access to Millennials at a very crucial time in their lives, a time in which the knowledge and experiences imparted to them can have far-reaching and, in some cases, life-altering effects.
The demand is there. A Kauffman study conducted during November’s entrepreneurship week found that more than half of Millennials are eager to start their own venture. Fifty-four percent of the nation's Millennials either want to start a business or already have started one. “Millennials recognize,” says Carl Shramm, former president and CEO of Kauffman Foundation, “that entrepreneurship is the key to reviving the economy." The study also revealed that while lack of mentorship and access to capital are mentioned as impediments to starting a business, so is the lack of entrepreneurship education.
Entrepreneur Ricardo Levy attests that the key attributes of successful entrepreneurs include being visionary, being passionate, and being open to risk. Many college students posses all three and are chomping at the bit to apply them in the “real world.”
Imagination flourishes in creative environments and those that foster communication across thematic boundaries. Like lights attracting congregating mosquitoes on hot summer nights, universities are hotbeds for creative interdisciplinary exchanges. A motley of Princeton undergraduate and graduate students from the sciences, finance, sociology, and engineering, for example, joined forces to create an enterprise focused on converting waste to methane in a Karachi landfill. Failure during the project implementation proved to be a valuable learning experience. Some of the students in the initial team are now working on their next entrepreneurial venture, equipped with the important insights that come from stumbling and beginning again.
What better place than a university to develop and foster entrepreneurial dreams at limited risk? Unlike many corporate cultures in which individuals remain exclusively focused on specific tasks, interdisciplinary thinking and team collaborations are not at all anomalies at universities. Interdisciplinary teams form readily as subject lines become hazy and as cross-disciplinary dialogue is encouraged. University settings abound with unique knowledge, resources, vibrant peers, entrepreneurial courses, competitions, co-working spaces, and experiential learning opportunities.
Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, developed her plan to recruit outstanding recent college graduates to teach for two years in America’s neediest urban and rural schools through her senior thesis work at Princeton. Today, Teach for America is widely recognized as one of the most successful social enterprises ever created. Over the last five years alone, 17,500 teachers were recruited into the program.
You may be thinking, aren’t many of the world’s most idealized entrepreneurs college dropouts? Indeed. This past spring, PayPal founder Peter Thiel announced his “Twenty Under Twenty” fellowship, which awarded $100,000 to 24 exceptionally talented young entrepreneurs under the age of 20 who committed to suspend their college education for two years to develop their ventures. It created a media frenzy, but ultimately, Thiel’s fellowship applies to a select group of exceptionally talented entrepreneurs. For the Mozarts of entrepreneurship, Thiel’s program is immensely valuable and certainly adds to the larger entrepreneurial eco-system. However, for the majority of budding entrepreneurs, a university education offers the best way to foster entrepreneurial ambition.
Given the economic crisis and the entrepreneurial renaissance, it would be irresponsible for universities not to step up to the plate. We can provide frameworks to foster entrepreneurship that support students when they are most open to new ideas, passionate about their beliefs, and interested in shaping the world.