Are entrepreneurs born or made? The ingredients for entrepreneurial thinking

Conventional wisdom tells us that only a select few are born with the skills to think entrepreneurially. And that only those people come up with truly great ideas that change the world. But what if we could teach those abilities to all students?

By Mike MacKinnon
February 1, 2018

 

For most of us, the word "entrepreneur" conjures up a mythology that's been ingrained in our cultural psyche since the first mass-produced Model 'T' rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line in 1913. We imagine solitary visionaries who start out with next to nothing. Thanks to a mysterious combination of talents, perseverance, luck and work ethic – and a world-changing idea no one else believes in – they end up as titans of industry or technology. Some of us even imagine ourselves as the next Oprah Winfrey or Steve Jobs, parlaying our improbable dreams and hardships into global empires.

But if you ask Houston Peschl what he thinks, you'll get a curious answer. "You don't have to start a business to be considered entrepreneurial," says Peschl, an instructor in UCalgary's Haskayne School of Business. "The technical business side is only one of many aspects of being an entrepreneur, and may sometimes be over-emphasized."

Instead, Peschl focuses on figuring out what entrepreneurs do differently from everyone else, and teaching those skills to students in any discipline, whether or not they ever start a business. "If you take a group of very successful entrepreneurs, their personalities, their backgrounds, their education are all radically different," says Peschl. "There is no indicator of success based on any of those metrics. The only real metric that demonstrates success is their ability to solve problems. Entrepreneurs approach problem-solving in a very calculated way."

According to Peschl, other traits that entrepreneurs have in common include being resilient in uncertain environments, being comfortable with failure, being empathetic to or understanding other people's needs, being creative and making do with limited resources, being comfortable with teamwork, and being able to concisely and convincingly explain their ideas. And those traits are all teachable, in the same way that science is taught to all students. "We can't all be Einstein, but we can all learn the scientific method," Peschl says. "We can teach the entrepreneurial thinking method the same way."

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8 traits of entrepreneurial thinkers
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Rather than only using entrepreneurial skills to start businesses, Peschl envisions graduates who can apply them to virtually anything, like homelessness, health care or education. "With all the problems that we face globally, that researchers face, that our institutions face, that our society faces – we need to become better at solving them," he says. "The best problem-solving people in our community have traditionally been entrepreneurs. They usually don't have enough money or time or whatever but they somehow make it happen. If we can empower our students to have those skills, then I think our society will be better off."

Peschl adds that people with entrepreneurial skills will be better off personally, too. "The competencies of entrepreneurial thinking will make people happier. When you realize the world is uncertain but you have a method to cope with that and you can deal with uncertainty, you'll have a lot more personal happiness as well."

THE SYMBIOSIS OF SCIENCE AND ENTREPRENEURIAL THINKING

The connection between entrepreneurial thinking and science goes both ways. "When you teach someone the scientific method, in essence, you're teaching them how to be an entrepreneur," says Lesley Rigg, dean of UCalgary's Faculty of Science.

For Rigg, the steps in the scientific process and the steps in entrepreneurial thinking are almost interchangeable. "You take an idea and you test it," she says. "You might have to build an experimental structure around the idea. Then you have to run it. You need money, so you go look for funding. You hire people. Then you have a result. Is the result something you can publish? Is it a marketable product? As you're going through the scientific process, you're going through Entrepreneurship 101. Entrepreneurial thinking and scientific reasoning are one and the same."

Teaching science students how to think entrepreneurially also provides them with a way to get their discoveries out into the world. To help with their entrepreneurial journey, the science faculty created a new position – the Associate Dean of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships, recently filled by Frank Maurer, PhD. Rigg says he will be responsible for expanding the opportunities for science students to connect their research and discoveries to the community. "Scientists don't necessarily always feel comfortable branching into the industrial-corporate ecosystem that we exist in," she says. "What we're working on is establishing better and tighter connections with industry, with corporations, and with the problems that are out there."

The faculty is also looking for ways to show students the more hands-on, practical side of entrepreneurial thinking, and to ensure they get credit for that work. "Intellectual property, disclosures of inventions, spinoff companies – how do these roll into what's recognized in academia? That's one of the challenges," says Rigg. "Ultimately, the goal is to have a set of courses that students could choose from, that would give them a certificate or credential that shows they took business ethics or project management or innovation or entrepreneurial thinking, in addition to graduating with a science degree."

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Rigg says that teaching students entrepreneurial thinking skills will make them more adaptable and better able to manage change in their professional careers. "A few years ago, if an incoming student had said to me, 'I want to work on the software for autonomous vehicles,' I would have had my doubts," says Rigg. "But guess what? That's what's happening in the world now.

"Students are starting university today who have no idea what jobs they're going to get, because those jobs don't even exist yet. So we're training students to think, to solve problems, to be critical, to create and to discover. Really, it's about being nimble. How do you teach a student to be nimble? That's our greatest challenge."

More than a set of skills, however, Rigg says entrepreneurial thinking is a mindset that meshes perfectly with the world of academics. "It's a way of existing," she says. "It's opportunistic, it's risky, it's okay to fail, it's saying if you don't try, you'll never know. It's a path of discovery. To me, it's everything that makes a university."

Why is entrepreneurial thinking important?

LEARNING TO THRIVE ON UNCERTAINTY

Looking toward the future, Haskayne School of Business Dean Jim Dewald sees one technological advance after another rapidly changing the world as we know it. "We are most likely entering a new industrial revolution powered by artificial intelligence, biotechnology, genomics, robotics and quantum computing," he says. "We cannot hope to give our students all the answers to tackle the challenges of their future, but we can provide them with important tools such as entrepreneurial thinking, so they can approach an unknown tomorrow effectively."

How does entrepreneurial thinking help students deal with the unknown? Dewald says that while critical thinking – the traditional method taught in business schools – seeks to identify and implement one optimal solution to a problem, entrepreneurial thinking seeks to identify opportunities and keep a range of options available. "Entrepreneurial thinking is much more open and expansive," says Dewald. "It's always exploring for creative new solutions."

In other words, instead of simply removing unexpected obstacles so you can continue doing what you're already doing, entrepreneurial thinking involves seeing the opportunities of the unexpected and turning them to your advantage. This leaves students better equipped to be nimble in their careers and make themselves valuable regardless of the circumstances.  

"The essence of entrepreneurial thinking is value creation," says Dewald. "It's a mindset which can be seen in all disciplines of research and work."

Dewald says it's also a mindset that thrives on different perspectives. "The chances of success rely on engaging with more than the business disciplines," he says. "Entrepreneurial thinking is far more effective with people who study problems or seek opportunities through engineering, science, medical, social, artistic, or a myriad of other lenses."

While Dewald's faculty leads the way in studying the processes of entrepreneurial thinking and incorporating them into the way students are taught, it shouldn't be confused with entrepreneurship. 

"Entrepreneurial thinking isn't exclusively about building businesses and making money," says Dewald. "It's about dreaming what could be and thinking about how to make that dream come true."

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ROLLING WITH ECONOMIC PUNCHES

Teaching students to see opportunity in the unexpected is even more important in times of economic upheaval – like the shock wave that rolled over Calgary after oil prices cratered in 2014, leaving the energy-industry city scrambling to diversify its economy and retool its workforce.

As CEO of Calgary Economic Development, which attracts investment to the city and helps local businesses grow by introducing new products, markets or customers, Mary Moran sees first-hand what employers are looking for. And she says it's "critical" for universities to teach students entrepreneurial thinking skills.

According to Moran, larger organizations tend to look for ways to cut jobs and streamline, and the majority of new jobs come from smaller to mid-size companies, who want employees with more of an entrepreneurial mindset. "Big corporate jobs aren't the way of the future," says Moran. "Growth is coming from smaller or younger companies so even if you don't want to run your own business, you have to be entrepreneurial. You have to be adaptable, be a critical and a contextual thinker, be opportunistic, and be able to fail fast and move on."

Furthermore, Moran says, when businesses are considering setting up operations in an area, they often ask about the city's post-secondary institutions. "Universities are generators of ideas and talent," she says. "Employers want to know how a university is going to fill their talent pipeline." Citing the city's recent high-profile bid to attract Amazon's second corporate headquarters, Moran says universities can respond by developing programs and certifications that provide the skills employers are looking for. The bid outline that was presented to Amazon included a proposal to train workers for the types of skills they were looking for.

By working together, universities, the business community and government can turn a major economic disruption into a time of opportunity, says Moran. "What are our high-potential sectors? Agribusiness, agritech, logistics, renewable energy, clean tech – those are today's opportunities. But what about future thinking? By working together, we can envision not just what we are today, but what could we be?"

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Alberta's "cultural industries" are booming.

THE CURTAIN OPENS ON OPPORTUNITY

As Alberta's economic landscape changes and becomes less reliant on the energy industry, other industries are seeing unexpected growth. "We're seeing great diversification in Alberta right now," says Richard Sigurdson, dean of UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. "What I call the cultural industries are booming."

With that diversification, says Sigurdson, there's increased interest in entrepreneurial thinking across all departments, from the performing arts to philosophy to psychology. In response, Sigurdson says the faculty has adopted entrepreneurial thinking into its recently released strategy, and is infusing entrepreneurial thinking skills into curricula in all departments.

Sigurdson says there are two major ways to approach entrepreneurial thinking in a faculty as large and diverse as Arts: one is to disrupt the ways some of the more traditional disciplines see themselves and to get them to consider opportunities outside of the way they normally do things. The other is to teach the more literal side of entrepreneurialism to students in a faculty where those skills haven't always been a focus.

"We want our students working in psychology to be as creative as our dancers or artists in the way they approach problems," says Sigurdson. "And we want our musicians and our drama students to take a critical view, so they're always looking at things from a new perspective."

Sigurdson says that sometimes it's just a matter of teaching students to think about the different ways they can add value in their fields. "It's coming up with new and innovative ways of looking at a problem," he says. "It could be finding new ways to deliver services to vulnerable populations, it could be a philosopher providing ethical guidance to corporations, it could be helping people in the north who can't grow fresh food. But the idea is the same as in entrepreneurial thinking associated with business, where you find new ways to crack that nut and do something highly productive."

As for the more creative disciplines, Sigurdson says there's a growing appetite for those students to learn entrepreneurial aspects of their arts. "Traditionally we've been focused on performance – on generating people who can make studio art, who can be actors or directors in drama, who can play instruments or compose music," he says. "But we're finding that students are increasingly very interested in learning the business side of the cultural industries."

For example, the film and television industry is growing in Alberta, and a new production studio was recently built in Calgary to meet the demand. But key positions are being filled from out of province. "They're having to find people from Vancouver or Toronto or Los Angeles to be what they call the above-the-line talent – the producers, the scriptwriters, the people who can find funding and distribution and marketing for the films," says Sigurdson. "We should be generating that talent ourselves. That's one of the things we're working on."

While focusing on that side of the arts is relatively new for his faculty, Sigurdson says the relationship between the arts and entrepreneurialism is more natural than it may seem. "Our arts students are the most entrepreneurial students we have," he says. "They learn very early how to promote their work, how to value their work, how to get it in front of potential buyers. They have to if they want to make a living as artists."

And, he says, the more traditionally entrepreneurial disciplines have a lot to learn from the arts, too. "Traditional entrepreneurs need many of the skills that a liberal arts education provides. They have to have good communications ability, be good problem solvers, be able to work with others, have good numeracy and literacy skills, be able to synthesize material from a variety of different sources, and be able to make a case for themselves. These are all things that we teach."

"NEVER WASTE A GOOD CRISIS"

As CEO of Innovate Calgary, an organization that helps researchers and academics turn their discoveries and innovations into marketable products, Peter Garrett has a pretty good sense of the trends in economic activity. "A few years ago, when the oil industry was doing wonderfully, innovation and economic development weren't really front-burner issues," says Garrett, who is also UCalgary's new associate vice-president of research – innovation. "But now, I'm definitely seeing an acceleration in the interest in moving ideas out into the marketplace."

Garrett says this renewed interest isn't just taking place in the traditional arenas of innovation, science and engineering, but in other disciplines across campus and in the community at large. "It isn't just in the hard science areas," he says. "There's a lot of projects on the clinical side of things, and on the social side. We've even started a new social innovation incubator, because you can use the same principles of building and growing a for-profit company as a vehicle to do social good."

For Garrett, entrepreneurial thinking isn't so much about entrepreneurship as it is a perspective or a mindset. "You don't have to build a company to think entrepreneurially," he says. "It's more of a way of thinking and looking at the world and saying, 'there's a better way of doing this.' Once they see a problem or an opportunity, it's the entrepreneurially thinking person who will jump in and attempt to create a solution, rather than sitting back and waiting for someone else to do it."

A changing economy also means a changing job market, and Garrett says students are more likely to change careers several times over the course of their lives. "In today's world, students often have to create their own jobs, either in new organizations that they create or in existing organizations. So they have to be able to go out and actively promote an initiative. Their path isn't as clearly defined as it used to be."

Complicating things is the changing nature of learning itself. "Knowledge today is a commodity," says Garrett. "Students can go online and access courses, rather than sitting in lectures at prescribed times on prescribed days. But what they can't get online is the experiential learning. The labs, the workshops, the tutorials, and what they can do with their knowledge."

In this learning climate, the role of universities is to help students use their knowledge to have an impact on the world around them, says Garrett. "Entrepreneurial thinking is fundamentally about what you do with your knowledge," he says. "Figuring out how to extract value out of that knowledge. The value may be economic, it may be social, it may be artistic, but extracting that value out of your knowledge. To me, that's the future of universities."

Citing the importance of community and culture in promoting entrepreneurial thinking, Garrett says Calgary provides an ideal setting for students to take their ideas into the marketplace. "Entrepreneurial thinking has been in our DNA from day one," he says. "To me, the ultimate entrepreneurs were those first homesteaders who got on boats in Europe and arrived on the bald prairie and carved out a life and an agriculture industry. They were literally betting their lives. Then we moved into oil and gas, and now we're seeing the third wave of entrepreneurial thinking, where we're leveraging our technology and research excellence in the new economy. We never waste a good crisis."

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Entrepreneurs rarely work in isolation.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE AN ENTREPRENEUR

If entrepreneurial thinking thrives within communities, then the image of the entrepreneur as a solitary hero is counterproductive, says Alice de Koning, Area Chair for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Haskayne School of Business. "If we present entrepreneurial thinking as something heroes do on their own, because they are unique and special, then we exclude a lot of the population," she says. "If we want to create a community of entrepreneurial thinking but we emphasize the individual, then there will be a lot of people who don't feel like that applies to them."

De Koning found in her own research that successful serial entrepreneurs never come up with their ideas in isolation. These entrepreneurs have a community around them to validate and refine their ideas, and those conversations are essential to the final product. "The first idea is never the right idea," she says. "Our research shows that without those conversations, the ideas don't get better."

De Koning says that talking to other people about their ideas helps entrepreneurial thinkers determine not only whether the idea is good, but also allows them to think it through themselves. "You're forcing yourself to articulate the ideas in a way that someone else can understand what you're talking about. In that process you think better, you think more clearly and you're more likely to solve problems."

While there are exceptions – for example, when technological breakthroughs need to be safeguarded – de Koning says that the notion of secrecy and keeping one's ideas to oneself for fear they'll be copied could actually be detrimental. "Often, more than one person comes up with the same idea at the same time," she says. "But if you're hoarding your idea, you're not expanding on it, you're not figuring out how to actually do it, you're not building the alliances and collaborations you need to make it work. And you end up actually falling behind compared to someone else with the same idea."

As an example, de Koning points to the collaborative nature of craft breweries, or neighbourhoods with many restaurants near each other. "There's a term in strategy we call 'co-opetition,'" she says. "The idea is that it's harder for a restaurant by itself to succeed. But in a cluster, they're creating a neighbourhood that people want to go to. So it's competitive in the sense that they want people walking down the street to choose their restaurant, but it's completely collaborative in the sense that they work together to create a community and bring people to the neighbourhood."

To illustrate the point, de Koning brings her students to neighbourhoods with flourishing business communities, and gets the students to meet local entrepreneurs and business associations and see how they work together. "They all know each other," she says. "They're friends, they hang out, they help each other. It's good for students to see these little microcosms, and to realize it's like that in every industry." 

While co-operation and a community mindset may seem to counter the traditional entrepreneurial imagery of cutthroat competition, de Koning says it makes perfect sense given our social natures. "The role of conversation in entrepreneurial thinking is fascinating," she says. “And what is conversation? It's human community, it's human interaction."

And in the end, it always comes back to relationships: "Problems don't exist in the abstract," says de Koning. "So when we talk about entrepreneurial thinking, we always need to be connecting our thinking, our resources, our activities, our impact to people. Who are they, what problems do they have, how are we going to solve them, how are we going to build relationships with them so that they'll work with us? And that's exactly how entrepreneurial thinking works outside of a business context, too."

ENGINEERING ENTREPRENEURIAL THINKING

In the engineering complex hallway, a handful of students huddle over a pile of recyclables. Still in their first year, they’ve got to design, build and test a device out of materials found in a Calgary blue bin. Heads together, they whisper to each other. “What if we used a stronger material here? What if we added some weight for balance? What if . . . ?”

Developing an entrepreneurial mindset starts with training students to constantly ask problem-solving questions, says Bill Rosehart, dean of UCalgary's Schulich School of Engineering.

“Entrepreneurial thinking and engineering have always gone hand in hand,” says Rosehart. “Engineering is about sparking new ideas to create new things, and finding solutions that have never been imagined before. For our graduates to be successful, we need to teach them how to think through a problem just like an entrepreneur. We need them not only thinking outside the box, but questioning if we ever needed a box in the first place.”

Infusing more opportunities for students to test their own designs is just one aspect of plans to expand entrepreneurial thinking throughout the engineering school.  It’s so important they now include design challenges in orientation activities for incoming students.

“Problem-solving, collaboration, communications – all of these skills come into play when we talk about entrepreneurial thinking," says Rosehart. "We know future employers are looking for exactly this when they hire our graduates."

Engineering entrepreneurial thinking isn’t just about what goes on inside the classroom. It’s about giving students the tools and space they need to explore ideas on their own. That’s why, as part of a $174-million renovation and expansion project, the engineering school is establishing a series of maker spaces. Set to open in 2018, the maker multiplex will provide space for students to prototype as well as improved access to machines they need to engineer their designs.

“We’ve already had engineering students on their own creating food preservation systems that don't need electricity or working to build social media networks for users with intellectual disabilities," says Rosehart. "Think what they'll be able to do with a space dedicated to helping nurture their entrepreneurial spirit."

The blurred line between entrepreneurs and engineers abounds at the annual Capstone Design Fair. Each year, the engineering school hosts a tradeshow of next generation technology – all conceived and created by UCalgary students. Projects have included everything from a $25 prosthetic limb for amputees in developing countries to brain mapping sensors to a tabletop ice hockey game that maintains a real ice surface.

Completing a capstone project is required to graduate from engineering, but some ideas have the potential to go farther. That’s why the Schulich School of Engineering has partnered with Innovate Calgary to help the most entrepreneurial students consider how to protect their intellectual property, develop a prototype or effectively communicate their ideas. 

“Fostering entrepreneurial thinking isn’t just about giving students tools to get to graduation day. It’s about creating a mindset they can grow throughout their lives,” says Rosehart. “The engineering leaders of tomorrow must be disrupters, willing to question the status quo. They’re the ones always wondering what if . . . ”

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About our experts

Houston Peschl is an instructor of Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Sustainable Development in UCalgary's Haskayne School of Business. He started his entrepreneurial journey in the town of Canmore, Alberta at the age of 13. Seven successful start-ups have followed, along with the passion to solve the world's problems through entrepreneurial thinking. Read more about Houston
Lesley Rigg, PhD, is the dean of UCalgary's Faculty of Science. Lesley is a forest ecologist. Her research interests include biogeography with an emphasis on forest ecosystems and vegetation dynamics. Read more about Lesley
Jim Dewald is the dean of the Haskayne School of Business and an associate professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship. Jim has several research and teaching awards, three books, two book chapters, over 20 academic papers, and over 60 newspaper and practitioner articles to his credit. Read more about Jim
Mary Moran is president and CEO of Calgary Economic Development. She joined Calgary Economic Development as the Vice President, Marketing, Communications & Research in 2010 and was promoted to President and Chief Executive Officer in 2015. She has extensive leadership experience in developing strategy, marketing, stakeholder relations, and fund development with major corporations including TELUS, Delta Hotels, Canadian Airlines and WARDAIR.
Richard Sigurdson is the dean of UCalgary’s Faculty of Arts. His research interests lie in political theory, Canadian politics, and the politics of nationalism, specifically on national identity and how it affects public policies on immigration in different countries. Read more about Richard
Peter Garrett is the president of Innovate Calgary, the technology-transfer and business-incubation centre for the University of Calgary, and has been newly appointed as Associate Vice President (Research) – Innovation at UCalgary. Peter is a graduate of the Schulich School of Engineering, has held numerous executive and technology development leadership positions in the private sector, and has been active as an investor, consultant and board member with many technology companies. Read more about Peter
Alice de Koning, PhD, is a senior instructor for entrepreneurship and strategy and Area Chair for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UCalgary's Haskayne School of Business. Her research considers how social and institutional contexts affect entrepreneurial cognition and opportunity recognition. Read more about Alice
Bill Rosehart is the dean of UCalgary's Schulich School of Engineering. Under Bill’s leadership, the school has launched new programs and opened the new Canadian Natural Resources Limited Engineering Complex. Read more about Bill

 

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