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The core of entrepreneurship is to make meaning – Guy Kawasaki


“The entrepreneurial life is one of challenge, work, dedication, perseverance, exhilaration, agony, accomplishment, failure, sacrifice, control, powerlessness… but ultimately, extraordinary satisfaction.”
~ David S. Rose

Entrepreneurship as a Life Skill

“Can entrepreneurship be taught?” was one of the questions I got from an economics professor when I interviewed in 2009 for the position I now hold at Iowa State University.  If I’d been in a more snarky mood that day I might have responded with my own question: Can economics be taught?  But alas, I think I just replied with a ‘yes’ and an explanation of why I thought it true.

The question of whether entrepreneurs are born or made is an enduring one.  One very successful entrepreneur who speaks to my class occasionally equates entrepreneurial success with genetics.  Either you have the right genes or you don’t.  Another asks students to ask themselves whether they are leaders.  If they answer ‘no,’ he suggests they work for an entrepreneur rather than become one themselves.

While I realize not everyone will choose the life of an entrepreneur in the purest sense, starting a business, everyone does have the capacity to develop the skills important to an entrepreneur.  I am certainly happy that I haven’t been confined to the skills and inclinations I had when 20 years old!  While I suspect there were some nuggets of an entrepreneurial skill set in my 20 year old self, I continue to learn, work on weaknesses, and strive to be a more effective entrepreneur today than I was yesterday.

Today is the start of my fourteenth semester teaching entrepreneurship course at Iowa State University.  My experience has certainly borne out that entrepreneurship can be taught.  Not in classic lectures, un-ending war stories, or simulations, but through just doing it.  Students create concepts for new businesses and go through the process of developing and presenting a business plan.

This semester’s 96 students will join the ~1,100 past students who’ve taken the course who’ve went through the process of identifying opportunities, translating those opportunities into a new business, and developed an articulate plan for launching the business.  It’s not easy, but it’s been an outstanding way to help students begin to develop their own entrepreneurial skill set, hopefully the first steps in what will be become a professional life marked by continued skill development.

The students join the ranks of past students who have taken an idea from the class and launched a business.

  • ScoutPro – Launched by Michael Koenig, Stuart McCulloh, and Holden Nyhus based on a class project in 2011.
  • AccuGrain – Launched by Ryan Augustine based on a class project in 2012.
  • Track Till – Launched by Colin Hurd based on a class project in 2013.
  • Wolter’s Custom Yardens – Launched by Joshua Wolters based on a class project in 2015.

Each of these young entrepreneurs has done well not just to launch a business, but to continually push to develop their entrepreneurial skill set.  Skills important to entrepreneurs in my experience include the following, though certainly not an exhaustive list.

  • Make-it-happen – Entrepreneurs need to be able affect their circumstances and those around them.  This action-orientation is a big part of what sets apart the entrepreneurial from those who take things as they come.  Shape the world or be shaped by it.
  • Communication – Effective communication with others is at the center of many entrepreneurial activities such as presentations and sales.  Not every successful entrepreneur is necessarily a wildly-skilled presenter, but at some level they can effectively persuade other people.
  • Teamwork & networking – It goes along with communication, but understanding how to build teams and the value of meeting and seeking out new people  is important to effectiveness.  “Some of the strangest people you meet will make the biggest difference in your life,” says one of the entrepreneurs who speaks to my class each semester.
  • Opportunity identification – Looking at the world through an entrepreneurial lens involves being able to identify opportunities others may miss.  What problems can be solved in new and better ways?
  • Prioritization and focus – Effective entrepreneurs I’ve met not only see opportunities, they also effectively choose to work on those that are most attractive.  Time is life’s most limited resource, so managing your time and focus is key.  I recently saw a presentation where an entrepreneur said the projects he works on and invests in have to meet a ‘hell yes!’ hurdle.  They have to be so compelling he is yelling ‘hell yes!’ to them.  Not many things rise to that level of interest and excitement.

Which skills are most important for you to develop?  It depends highly on where you’re at in your career, your past experiences, and an honest assessment of what you’re good at and what you’re not.  Most importantly, development of your entrepreneurial skill set depends on your mindset.  Do you believe that you can develop your skills?  If you can answer ‘yes’ to that question then get after it!