Teaching the 'unteachable'

Is entrepreneurship in the blood, or can it be learnt?

Can you be taught to be an entrepreneur or are entrepreneurs born and not made? Clearly most business schools answer the first question in the affirmative, though they would also acknowledge that pushy genes come in handy.

There is a body of knowledge about entrepreneurship and that knowledge can be transferred via lectures to other people, according to Professor Don Schultz of Northwestern University in the USA. Students can be given the knowledge and experience to prepare them for their first venture.

Americans have been teaching all kinds of people to get on their bikes and set up businesses for a long time, he told a seminar at Oxford Brookes University. A National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship has been teaching low-income and at-risk young people to become self-sufficient since 1987. To date it has served over 28,000 students.

The toughest challenge for people is turning the start-up company into an established enterprise. Business schools can help by regularly updating their graduates' skills and knowledge after graduation. And members of faculty can act as consultants, holding regular seminars with their entrepreneurial graduates in the years after graduation.

New forms of electronic communication, for example teleconferencing and the Net, can be used to offer continual learning opportunities 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Britain has come to entrepreneurship later. Our culture and history have not encouraged us to do things for ourselves. According to Trevor Baylis, the inventor of the clockwork radio, inventors and entrepreneurs need to be able to consult people whom they trust. Britons are brilliant at inventing things but ill-equipped to put these ideas into commercial production.

James Dyson, the inventor of the bagless cyclonic vacuum cleaner, had to take out 160 patents to defend his invention. An estimated 56 per cent of the world's greatest inventions are made in the UK but some £165bn every year is lost from British inventions being developed overseas. Britain needs to celebrate its inventors, says Mr Baylis. Invention and its history should be taught as part of the national curriculum.

Mr Baylis is attempting to set up an academy of inventors to help inventors in Britain, who have historically been treated very shabbily, many dying in poverty or committing suicide.

Entrepreneurship can be taught to some people, according to Tim Cook of Oxford University's ISIS Innovation Ltd. Entrepreneurs need to understand how their products work, to perceive there is a need for the product and to have the commitment to take their product to market. During the past two years his company, which files patents, issues licences and starts new companies, has helped launch 12 companies now worth some £60m.

The seminar ended with a vote. A slight majority decided that, indeed, entrepreneurship can be taught.

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