September 11, 2013, 7:29 p.m. ET
Students are clamoring for instruction, but it’s hard. There are no algorithms for success.
By BILL AULET
Forget medical school or law school. These days, record numbers of high-school and college students say they aspire to be entrepreneurs. At Yale University, for example, over 20% of the undergraduates indicate that they are interested in pursuing entrepreneurship as a career. Compare that with 1980, the year I graduated from Harvard. I didn’t know what the word “entrepreneur” meant—and neither did any of my friends.
There is good reason for this trend. Traditional career paths no longer offer the security they once seemed to guarantee, and startups promise young people independence, control and the possibility of making good money.
As head of the Martin Trust Center for MIT MITD +1.92% Entrepreneurship, I welcome this enthusiasm. But my excitement is tempered by the reality that meeting the expanding demand with quality educational offerings will be a significant challenge.
Teaching entrepreneurship well is really hard. I know this because when I first started teaching, I did a terrible job. As a former professional basketball player and an experienced entrepreneur, I fell back on convenient sports analogies: Work hard, be smart, stay up later, get up earlier. Be prepared. I chose success, and you should too! My lectures got high ratings from students, so I assumed they were effective.
I was wrong. Teaching entrepreneurship is difficult because the subject itself is idiosyncratic, contextual and experiential. Unlike chemistry, math or computer programming, there are no definite answers in the startup world. By definition, entrepreneurs are doing the unknown and the untried, so there are no algorithms for success.
Making matters worse, there is a limited amount of scholarship and data that exists on what makes startups succeed or fail. As a result, the intellectual and scholarly vacuum is often filled by anecdotes. We’ve all listened to a version of “it all started in the garage with $20.” Entrepreneurs are prone to mythologizing the early days of their businesses, yet these stories mislead those who aspire to follow in their footsteps.
Yes, entrepreneurs need the can-do spirit that makes them believe they can build a successful company out of a proverbial garage. But to succeed, they also need excellent execution skills.
These skills can be taught. I’ve witnessed this at MIT. Companies such as Hubspot, a marketing software company that employs hundreds and is worth hundreds of millions of dollars was born in our classrooms.
While entrepreneurship will never be fully like law, medicine or accounting, colleges need to start thinking of entrepreneurship as a discipline that demands similar academic rigor. At MIT, we admit students with a passion for building companies; often they have a particular idea they want to pursue. We bring in real entrepreneurs who talk about how to meet a payroll, for instance, and academics who make sure lessons are statistically valid.
The combination is the key. By the time our students graduate, they should know to build a successful team and bring breakthrough products to market.
As the Kauffman Foundation has documented, the majority of jobs that are created these days come from startups. These companies are the country’s economic lifeblood and often address problems in critical areas like the environment, health care and education. The entrepreneurs who devote their working lives to creating these companies deserve more than what they seem to get from paying $50,000—and often much more—for a degree.
So here is one pep talk I stand by: Schools like MIT must do a better job of teaching entrepreneurship. While we professors should encourage the spirit of a pirate in our students, we need also to focus on teaching the execution skills of a Navy SEAL. Our approach must be scalable to meet the surging demand.
If we don’t, and students go out into the world lacking the entrepreneurial skills they need, at some point there will be a backlash against entrepreneurship as an educational discipline and even as a pursuit in life. Such a setback is one that the U.S. economy can ill afford.
Mr. Aulet’s book, “Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup,” was just published by Wiley.