Sunday, June 13, 2010

Teaching High School Students About Entrepreneurship

Starting June 19th, I have the privilege to be teaching marketing and entrepreneurship to a group of high school students as part of the Stanford University Education Program for Gifted Youth.  In putting the course together, there is the obvious task of what content to teach the students, whose backgrounds range from no exposure to business to students who have one (or more!) startups under their belts already.  But equally important is the "meta content" that should be taught, for lack of a better term.  By meta content, I mean the implicit lessons to be imparted to prepare students to successfully apply the content being taught.  For those of you who've seen the movie The Karate Kid, think of the scene where Daniel finally gets fed up waxing Miyagi's car, in exchange for karate lessons, only to be shown that through the process he's actually been learning karate blocks all along.

For example, the meta-content students get through a public school education are geared to the demands of the industrial era.  In school they learn that authority is hierarchical, that questions have a right answer, and that the way to organize knowledge, work, and learning is by specialization, among other things.

The problem is that information era businesses, particularly startups, don't work this way, so that many of these meta-lessons are not only irrelevant, they are dysfunctional.  For example, much has been written about the need to break down silos - a natural outgrowth of the specialization mentality - in order to improve organizational performance.

So what do I want the students to walk away with in addition to the content being taught?
  • The fundamental reason for a business to exist is to fulfill a need;  any activity not directly involved with this is secondary.  The core of being able to do this is learning how to (1) identify a need (2) fill it and (3) do it in such a way that the business can sustain itself (i.e. business model).
  • The purpose of a startup is discovery.  The core of being able to do this is through intelligent trial and error and extracting lessons learned from both successes and failures.  This is Steve Blank 101.
  • In business there is no single right answer;  what's right is what works (provided that this is done ethically!)
  • It's people that make things happen.  Money and materials are just so much dead weight until people transform them into products and solutions.
  • Business is about teamwork and startups are about networking. You might be able to make a living as a soloist, but building a business is a team sport.  And networking is key to finding the team.
  • Business is holistic.  The distinction between functions like finance, marketing, sales, operations etc. is not as real as they teach in the text books.
  • Values matter.  They matter because people matter.  Values will infuse every decision made about how to treat customers, employees, partners, and investors.
  • Brains are important but character is more so.  Why?  Because business is usually conceptually easy but executionally hard, complicated, and messy.  I've found that one's ability to cooperate, inspire, and lead people, to persevere, to bounce back from adversity, to work hard, and to face reality are far greater determinants of business success than one's IQ.
I'd love to hear from you as to what else you think and what might be missing from the list.

Related Posts:
Uncontroversial Company Values
Takeaways from the Stanford B-School Entrepreneurship Conference
The Job of a Small Company CEO
My Top 10 Entrepreneur CEO Lessons

1 comment:

  1. Ed,

    Two things that I can think of - 1) Your investors are trusting in you to do the right thing and manage their money wisely. Money management skills are important. 2) Those school projects that students do teach valuable lessons about working on business projects. As we move out of the functional silo model, we will move into the project management model. Everything is now treated as a project.