You can't teach entrepreneurship

By Ray DePaul

I hear this statement a lot, "You can't teach entrepreneurship". I hear it from donors. I hear it from successful entrepreneurs. I hear it from experts in other disciplines. At first, I was a little shaken by this. I had recently paused my own career in the technology sector to attempt to do just that, teach entrepreneurship. Was I wasting a bunch of years in the "prime" of my career? After four years at Mount Royal University engaged with budding and successful entrepreneurs, academics and the community, I've come to a conclusion.

You can't teach entrepreneurship. But you can experience it!

This is why you don't find entrepreneurship classes at Mount Royal that involve a wise old man at the front of the class lecturing for three hours a week. The desire to tell you my war stories is natural and dare I say some of them are even mildly entertaining and enlightening. But the real learning starts when the student gets their hands dirty and actually experiences entrepreneurship. Can you imagine teaching an artist how to paint by simply showing her a bunch of Rembrandt's or Renoirs? Or training our hockey players by only showing them old game films of Gretzky and Lemieux? Sure, some of that will help, but in the end you have to get out a paint brush or strap on the skates. At Mount Royal, we give students the opportunity to do just that - lace up those ill-fitting skates and get in front of a blank canvas. (I live for mixing metaphors).

I believe some of the confusion comes from the outliers. I would never claim that we can take an above average young entrepreneurship student and create the next Steve Jobs and you'd be a fool to claim you could take a great young hockey player and turn them into the next Gretzky. We all bring a set of gifts to everything we do. We can't manufacture a gift. We can, however, ensure those gifts are surrounded by skills and attitudes that will give those gifts an opportunity to shine. Gretzky had his father, Walter to nurture those skills. Among other things, Jobs famously had a calligraphy teacher who inspired a love of how even fonts can be beautiful.

Mount Royal excels at experiential learning. Our small classes and experienced instructors are designed just for this. Our introductory course in entrepreneurship (ENTR 2301 - The Entrepreneurial Experience) gives students the opportunity to create their own venture, share it with many members of the community, and use feedback to continuously refine it. In short, they experience entrepreneurship first-hand. At the end of the class, all students tell us they have learned a lot. But few would say that the instructor taught them much. And I wouldn't have it any other way.