Babson Entrepreneur Experience Lab

Elements of the Entrepreneur Experience

Experiences of Entrepreneurship
as a Life Skill

There’s no question that we live in increasingly unpredictable times where the uncertainties are beginning to far outweigh the certainties: high school and college curricula can’t keep pace with changing U.S. job market needs; unemployment rates are among the highest in generations, especially among young people; mid-career professionals who confidently followed the predictable climb up the corporate ladder only to find themselves jobless are asking “what now?;” and seniors are postponing traditional retirement and looking for new opportunities. The traditional notion of finding and retaining a single stable job for the majority of your working life is a thing of the past. People are being asked to reinvent themselves every 5 years. Uncertainty and rapid change rule the day.

Traditionally entrepreneurship has been associated with launching new businesses. However, many individuals and institutions are beginning to think of entrepreneurship as a vital life skill that extends far beyond the ability to launch a venture, a life skill that prepares individuals to deal with an ambiguous and uncertain future. Entrepreneurship embodies methods for thinking, acting, identifying opportunities, and approaching problems that enables people to manage change, adjust to new conditions, and to take control of actualizing personal goals and aspirations. It’s also a vehicle for developing a set of skills—creative thinking, leadership, decision-making, social networking, to name a few—that taken together, enable individuals to distinguish themselves in a variety of traditional and nontraditional work and life paths. To be entrepreneurial is to be inspired and capable of creating opportunities for oneself.

A sense of urgency to prepare for an entrepreneurial economy.

Many states and municipalities are moving to stay ahead of the curve and better prepare their students to create opportunities for themselves independent of fluctuating job markets. For instance, the Nebraska Department of Education (DOE) is integrating entrepreneurship throughout the educational system, from primary school through high school. According to the DOE, students will have experiences that “will enable them to develop the insight needed to discover and create entrepreneurial opportunities; and the expertise to successfully start and manage their own businesses to take advantage of these opportunities.” Similarly, the city of Austin is actively looking to create programs that prepare college students to create their own jobs when they graduate. This city-level initiative has inspired a number of potential collaborations between startup organizations targeting youth, university student entrepreneurs and well-established university programs.

A critical youth development tool

A number of educators realize the potential for using entrepreneurship as a vehicle to teach other vital life-skills. Inspired by her increasing dismay at a lack of basic knowledge about finance and how money works, Gayle, an Austin entrepreneur, founded the Money Academy to give young students a fundamental understanding of the nature of money. The students in her camp are divided into teams, given a $300 starting loan, and coached through the process of starting their own business. The camp is firmly rooted in team-based experiential learning where students explore things for themselves, learn from ‘breakdowns’ in the plan, and work through problems as a team. “By starting and running a successful business, they develop their skills in leadership, teamwork and integrity, and come to know themselves as responsible people that can accomplish whatever they choose.”

Fenway High School in Boston has recently incorporated an experiential year-long entrepreneurship program into their core curriculum. While launching their own ventures over the course of the year, students learn basic skills in math, finance, marketing, and design. But more importantly they learn critical thinking and innovation skills, social networking and relationship building skills, teamwork and self-promotion skills. For many students in the public school system, it’s the first time they’ve been asked and encouraged to think creatively about their own skills, interests, and ambitions. The benefits for the students, independent of their particular venture, are unquestionable.

Inspiring community change makers

Hope Community Development Agency in Mississippi began as disaster recovery and relief organization in the days following Hurricane Katrina, but quickly realized the need to address multiple community challenges. HopeCDA works to help people shift their mindset from looking outside the community for investment to taking action and building the services the community needs. Bill Stallworth, HopeCDA’s Executive Director, sees it as “fixing the people, so the people can fix their own problems.”

Ashoka’s Youth Ventures New England takes a similar approach but with youths as social innovators. “It is clear that any young person who has an idea for improving his or her community, leads a team, launches a venture and contributes something lasting will emerge transformed from such an experience. Young ‘Venturers’ will know that they are capable of leading and creating change, and it is likely that they will take initiative again and again over a lifetime.” A particularly unique aspect of this program is the emphasis on thinking entrepreneurially, but allowing such thinking to find application in a variety of different ways and contexts.

Fifty is the new thirty

With retirement being postponed or opted out of completely, many seniors (people 55 and up) are turning to entrepreneurship, either out of necessity, as an alternative to the corporate world, or because they still “have more to offer.” In the face of corporate downsizing and a rapidly changing economy, entrepreneurship is becoming a viable route to exercise more control over one’s later life and achieve financial sustainability. It’s fast becoming a trend as a large percentage of new businesses are started by individuals over 55.*

*(AARP Public Policy Institute 31% of self-employed age 55 and older. About 80 percent of Baby Boomers claim they want to work in retirement, according to Sara Rix of the AARP. She says, “I think many of them will try self-employment.” US Department of Labor statistics also show that nearly half the country’s 7.4 million self-employed are boomers.)