An entrepreneurial mindset promotes innovation, positive life skills … and sure, profit.
Whether kids should be taught how to be capitalists is debatable. Given that business remains the most popular college major, however, that need may already be filled. The entrepreneurial mindset, on the other hand, is usually stifled over the course of childhood.
"Children already think like entrepreneurs – when you provide them with a tool or toy and don't tell them how to use it, the ingenuity and creativity of how they use it is striking," said Anna Burrell, founder and CEO of Twiggs & Co., a small business consultancy firm. "The real question is how we teach adults to foster that inherent genius instead of squashing it." [Read related article: Companies Founded by Amazing Young Entrepreneurs]
Parents are not the only ones responsible – it takes a village. "The same question needs to be asked of our educational institutions," Burrell said.
The importance of an entrepreneurial mindset
For advocates of an entrepreneurial education like Burrell, there's a distinction between a business education and an entrepreneurial mindset. While economy-boosting may be a handy side effect, the main goal is to encourage the life skills that are part and parcel of the startup world, like persistence and learning from one's mistakes.
"[Children] do this intuitively when they're super young, but when they get to the age of 6 or 7, like my child, they'll say things like, 'Oh, I'm stupid,'" said Catie Harris, founder of NursePreneurs, where she mentors nurses on how to use entrepreneurship to improve healthcare. "Trying to help them reframe that is really important … It's helping them to understand that they're not failing, they're learning."
NursePreneurs also goes to show how entrepreneurial thinking can be applied to any career or domain – even those outside the Silicon Valley startup realm. Contrary to the notion of the self-employed entrepreneur, many of Harris' clients start as employees of organizations – nurses working for hospitals. Entrepreneurship may not be their chosen career path, but entrepreneurial skills can always be put to good use.
"A lot of my nurses come [to NursePreneurs] because they're just so frustrated, and they see things not working and they want to make them right," Harris said. "So that is the entrepreneurial aspect of it – they want to make an impact, they want to change the way things are, and they want to be a part of the solution."
Entrepreneurship as a curriculum
It's not hard to see how a field so commonly associated with disruption could be quashed in as rigid an institution as our educational system. Entrepreneurship values risk-taking, flexibility and questioning of authority – traits that are penalized in school.
"Having to answer 'I don't know' in front of your teacher and classmates can be humiliating and discouraging," said Rachel Cottam, a former high school teacher and marketing manager of the startup ZipBooks. "However, not knowing everything – while having the courage to try anything – is one of the greatest entrepreneurial skills. Educators need to allow students to admit when they don't know something and then empower them to go out and get the answer."
While an emphasis on STEM may provide the literal industry knowledge for innovation, when it comes to entrepreneurial thinking, the arts cannot be ignored.
"If you observe the results of educations with a balance of art, theater and other creative modalities," Burrell said, "you will find that programs that look at fostering creativity first are much more successful at creating well-rounded changemakers, especially in the long term, than programs focused solely on STEM."
Promoting entrepreneurial career paths
Schools are responsible not just as curriculum-setters, but as career counselors, opening up another opportunity to encourage entrepreneurship. Instead, many schools discourage it by omission.
"I think the school system is geared toward helping us find 'a path,' a path that will help us make money and whatnot," said Harris. "And once you get into the real world … you don't realize that there are these other avenues that you could've taken."
Instead, Harris often advises pre-nursing students to "set intention" in their career, treating employment as an opportunity to gain expertise that can be applied in a positive way. "You can go in there and say, 'I'm going to become the best cancer nurse, and I'm going to go in there and I'm going to learn this skill set, and I can use this later to start a business,'" she said.
Entrepreneurial mindset: Nature or nurture?
It goes without saying that no amount of priming or brain-plying is going to turn your child into the next Jeff Bezos. In fact, there are those who argue that any attempt is futile.
"I think I may have a different take than most people, and it may be a somewhat unpopular opinion," said Leanna DeBellevue, marketing consultant at DeBellevue Global. "I strongly believe that entrepreneurs are born, not made."
According to DeBellevue, entrepreneurs must have an innate resilience, "a lack of risk aversion, and a unique ability to bounce back," she said. "So no, I don't think children can be taught to think like entrepreneurs."
Others contest this nature-over-nurture view.
"Entrepreneurs are not superheroes with special powers; they’re just ordinary people who were so passionate about seeing something new in the world that they couldn't wait any longer for it to be created – they had to take action themselves," said Rob Kingyens, founder and CEO of Yellowbrick, which partners with universities and media companies to create online courses around "passion industries like fashion, music, and sneaker trade."
"What we’ve found is that if you stoke a kid's passion enough, they're going to find their own path in it," he added. "That's entrepreneurialism at its very core."