Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?


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January 20, 2016 15:19 EDT

Studying at university provides students with the necessary tools to become an entrepreneur and overcome common startup problems.

There has always been a fierce debate of whether entrepreneurship can be taught or not, and if an entrepreneur is made or simply born.

In the past, being an entrepreneur was not something “cool.” People who became an entrepreneur were usually those without a proper education, struggling to find a decent job. Becoming an entrepreneur was not the first career choice. Educated people would rather become a doctor, engineer, lawyer or accountant instead of heading through the pain of starting a new business.

But over the last decade, an entrepreneurship boom or “startup fever” has emerged. Being an entrepreneur suddenly looks cool, and out of the blue everyone wants to become the next Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerberg. Dragons’ Den-like competitions have become popular, business contests are everywhere, and a bunch of new startups are born in a flash.

Dealing with this growing public interest, educational institutions responded by including entrepreneurship in their curriculum. Universities designed specific degree programs in an attempt to nurture new entrepreneurs. All of a sudden, business owners, including those who had never attended university, have started to enjoy the privilege of being invited to hold lectures.

But there are questions that arise here. Is an entrepreneurship degree really worth it? Is it helpful or just a useless investment? Can universities produce real entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurship at University

As someone who holds a Master’s degree in Entrepreneurship, I feel an urge to answer those questions. What do I get out of an entrepreneurship degree? Could I be a more successful entrepreneur with an academic insight? Will these university assignments make my business survive and thrive?

Trying to find those answers is just like getting into a long debate over the correlation between theory and practice. But during my time at university, I learned something important: Theory does make sense if we know how to apply it in the real world.

When working on my final project, I realized that linking theory with practice was pretty hard to do. Diverse problems of the small businesses I interviewed seemed like a tangled mess.

To use an analogy, learning theory before practice is a bit like cooking with half the ingredients. You have the recipe, but you need to choose what to use and how. 

But there are frameworks you can use, according to my supervisor. You don’t have to rack your brain to solve a business problem—scholars have already done it for you. They found the root cause and even created a tool to help solve it. It’s true that some theoretical frameworks cannot be directly applied, but with some adjustments, they can help entrepreneurs understand common startup problems such as when to seek external investment.

I remember one of my lecturer’s quotes: “Theory is a tool.” He was an MBA graduate and had a long marketing career at a number of companies. During his practical work, his academic education gave him an advantage as he had adequate tools to deal with business-related problems.

To use an analogy, learning theory before practice is a bit like cooking with half the ingredients. You have the recipe, but you need to choose what to use and how. Likewise, practice without theory means you have to come up with the recipe yourself. And you probably won’t even know what ingredients to use or where to find them.

So, what does this mean for starting your own business?

Learning theory might shorten the time you need to scale your business. You don’t need to experience all the mistakes just to learn lessons. You can learn from other people’s mistakes—that’s why you study theory. It saves you time and energy that you need when starting any company.

Nevertheless, good theory is a base of good practice and a source to improve upon existing material. If business theory and practice are mutually exclusive of each other, you would never see a PhD graduate becoming a corporate boss like Eric Schmidt of Google and Jørgen Knudstorp of Lego. Those who say that theory has nothing to do with successful business practice probably don’t know how to use it properly.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Matej Kastelic /

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