Colleges Must Mix Entrepreneurial Skills, Traditional Liberal Arts


The great challenge facing higher education is to prepare students to navigate a world of accelerating uncertainty and faster churn. Training students to re-invent themselves every few years, as is already required in the world today, is an objective that legacy approaches to higher education is not optimized for. I’m convinced, however, that the University of Colorado-Boulder is piloting the right solution. Now we have to scale it.

We must teach every student an entrepreneurial mindset. In addition to the traditional depth of a discipline (think: major or degree path), students need breadth. High functioning individuals today are not just domain experts, they are also cognitively proximate to people in other domains. An entrepreneurial mindset goes beyond the traditional liberal arts ideals of training critical thinkers who are engaged citizens. An entrepreneurial mindset focuses upon empowering students to act upon their convictions and mobilize teams. In particular, there are five principles to the entrepreneurial mindset:

1. Collaboration is central to innovation. No one goes it alone. Yet much of higher education targets the individual. Students need to be taught methodologies that allow them to manage team processes, communicate across disciplines, and be able to recognize good ideas from other domains. Collaboration methods such as design-centered thinking develop an individual’s capacity to work with others.

2. Cultivate a network based perspective, rather than a hierarchical one. This is crucial in a world where an individual is likely to move across multiple organizations during a career. We need to teach students how to see themselves as actors in a network, more than cogs in a bureaucracy. Teaching students how to create a network, how information spillovers work, and how to provide value to others needs to be more front and center as part of a higher education experience.

3. Impart tools to embrace and navigate conditions of uncertainty and rapid change. Technology literacy as well as familiarity with lean startup practices are powerful tools to navigate uncertainty. High functioning individuals today must understand technology enablers. Those that do not understand changes effectuated by technology feel threatened, not empowered. Further, high functioning individuals also must be able to test ideas in experimental ways. Practices like lean methodologies teach individuals how to run tests before going “all in” on a new direction.

4. Bias toward doing over planning. Classroom lectures, PowerPoint presentations, and academic papers still have important roles in teaching formal knowledge. But these tools should be complemented by an emphasis on experiential learning. Another way of saying this is that the formal learning of the classroom must be balanced by the acquisition of tacit knowledge (i.e., knowing in doing). Students need both in order to be effective A-level players. And especially as more and more formal learning can be done through on-line courses, I expect experiential education to increasingly differentiate in-person education that occurs on campus.

5. The community is part of the classroom. Over the past decade, CU-Boulder and Silicon Flatirons have created a high velocity of interaction between campus and community. Collapsing the barriers between town and gown is remarkably powerful. Active engagement within one’s relevant community yields opportunities and experiences that cannot be learned elsewhere.

[Editor’s note: Xconomy recently asked thought leaders in educating and developing entrepreneurs what changes they’d like to see the education system in this country make. You can see answers to that and other questions here.]

Brad Bernthal is director of the Silicon Flatirons Center’s Entrepreneurship Initiative at the University of Colorado-Boulder and a faculty member of the Colorado Law School, where he leads the entrepreneurial law clinic and teaches classes on venture capital finance. Follow @BradBernthal

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2 responses to “Colleges Must Mix Entrepreneurial Skills, Traditional Liberal Arts”

  1. Suicidal_JD says:

    Law school ruined my life! I now have no job and I have student loan debt that will follow me to my grave. Save yourself! DO NOT GO TO LAW SCHOOL.

  2. David Mandell says:

    Brad, awesome perspective. I would highlight #4 as the key change that I would advocate. The concept of doing more faster, and failing fast is a critical concept in the new business world and it’s the hardest for recent grads – both under and post-grads – to grasp.