Why old school no longer works for entrepreneurial education

Pete Newell

February 5, 2021

Some say people are born entrepreneurs. Dr. Tom Byers, engineering professor at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, has taught a generation of entrepreneurs that prove otherwise. And many of them are now poised to make the world a better place, he says.

“Entrepreneurship was not seen as a credible higher education topic or discipline for many, many decades. It was only about 30–40 years ago that some pioneers whose shoulders we stand on really fought back and said you really can learn entrepreneurship,” Tom explained on a recent episode of The Innovators Radio Show and Podcast.

“If entrepreneurship and innovation can be taught, then we need to keep pushing the boundary on what the key issues are around the teaching. There are so many different paradigm-shifting platforms happening that it makes us proud that our strategy (at Stanford) has always been to think about entrepreneurship and innovation education as not tied to one particular field.”

Tom sees entrepreneurship education as imparting “innovation literacy and innovation confidence” in students of all disciplines, and building students’ skill sets in strategic thinking, communication, resilience, and self-awareness. These students have an edge, he says: “They have the skills and techniques that make them effective in enterprises and semi-bureaucratic organizations — they will bring in new ideas as a result of these classes where they’ve learned powerful skills knowledge and behaviors.”

There has never been a more critical time for the leaders of tomorrow to have these skills in hand. “The challenges facing the planet right now…have got to get solved by 2030,” Tom said, listing priorities such as security, healthcare, infrastructure, and sustainability. “Who’s going to do that but entrepreneurs and innovators?”

Tom hopes these opportunities pull social entrepreneurship out of its niche and into the spotlight. This requires looking beyond profit maximization, and putting focus on building solutions that can make an impact where it is sorely needed.

“The best startups begin with purpose and vision. Having chocolate chip cookies delivered to a dorm at 2 am isn’t going to save the planet. There is tremendous opportunity to redirect all this firepower that we’ve developed into mission-driven or mission-oriented entrepreneurship.”

Doing it successfully, however, will require more than world-class skills. “We don’t have to name names, but the news (around some tech companies) these past few years is a huge wake-up call. We need to emphasize ethics, and principles and values in the teaching of entrepreneurship and innovation.” It’s something Tom is making a special effort to do.

Check out the whole chat with Tom here, or jump into the timestamps below.

2:00: A secret part of the history of Silicon Valley

5:38: How mavericks and forces of nature like Steve Blank and Tina Seelig created innovations in teaching

13:54: Validating entrepreneurship education

16:30: Methods and frameworks for teaching entrepreneurship

18:20: AI, machine learning and other game-changing technology

21:45: A call for social entrepreneurship and mission-driven ventures

26:23: Having Theranos in your classroom

30:14: Why founders should always tell their own story

34:22: How a series of failures can lead to an epiphany that takes off

43:08: How transformative education and innovation instruction can be for students

50:30: Laws of gravity and myths about entrepreneurship

59:22: Bad Blood and Brotopia — the need for ethics in entrepreneurship

01:03:23: Why Tom is optimistic about the next generation of founders

The Innovators Radio Show and Podcast highlights the best and brightest mission-driven entrepreneurs — people dedicated to making the world a better place. The show airs Mondays at 11 am PT/2 pm ET on Stanford University radio station KZSU, 90.1 FM, and is streamed at kzsu.org, Past episodes are archived here.

Tune in Aug. 26 when our guest will be Trae Stephens, partner at the Founders Fund.

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