Is entrepreneurship an innate trait that some individuals are born with? Or can it be learned, like the ability to do algebra?
We believe very firmly that entrepreneurs can be made. In fact, everyone can – and should – be an entrepreneur. With this in mind, the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation has introduced the Entrepreneurship Challenge, a programme which nurtures entrepreneurial thinking and problem solving amongst high school learners.
The Challenge is rooted in gamification; important, because it represents a dramatic diversion from the traditional modes of teaching, especially around entrepreneurship. This is key, because the current education system appears to encourage learners to think like employees, rather than entrepreneurs, thereby stunting their entrepreneurial potential. Or, as author, entrepreneur and Foundation consultant Gary Schoeniger puts it, the other-directed approach, which entails telling people when and how to do something rather than allowing them to find their own solution, nurtures a non-entrepreneurial mindset.
Happily, Schoeniger maintains that it’s possible to change this mindset – but only if teachers shift their emphasis from delivery to discovery. Entrepreneurship is, after all, “an opportunity discovery process” – Schoeniger’s words – so, if learners are taught early on to look beyond the obvious, they’ll eventually embrace this as a habit.
Educators and engagement
The question, then, is how do you teach young people to remain primed for discovery? For Schoeniger, this comes down to three critical competencies – creativity, collaboration and critical thinking – which are amplified by personal qualities like resilience, curiosity, social and cultural awareness. Interestingly, these are the very traits which have been repeatedly highlighted as qualities required if human endeavour is to withstand the increasing appearance of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace. Thus, it is imperative that all people are taught to think as entrepreneurs, even if they do not see themselves becoming business owners in the future.
This is where platforms like the Entrepreneurship Challenge have an important role to play. The Challenge – an interactive national online competition – engages students by encouraging them to find solutions to real problems prevalent in their communities.
During the past two years, more than 8 500 students have taken part in the Challenge. However, the initiative aims to involve teachers, too, by providing collateral and content that helps educators support students on their journey to adopting a more entrepreneurial way of thinking.
This is not the only way in which the Allan Gray Philanthropic Entities are reaching out to educators. The Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment established the Jakes Gerwel Fellowship (JGF); a community of high impact, expert teachers who understand the need to collaborate in order to solve challenges within the education system. By embracing this approach, teachers are cultivating the very skills they need to pass on to their students.
Added to this, the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation is working to create a culture of high impact entrepreneurialism in South Africa. This speaks to Schoeniger’s observation that students generally respond to relatable role models; individuals from backgrounds echoing their own circumstances who have shown that it is possible to achieve entrepreneurial success. Sadly, the lack of a thriving entrepreneurial culture in South Africa means that most students look to Silicon Valley and other international case studies for examples of entrepreneurs who have made a difference to society – people with whom they have little in common. Nor do the challenges these overseas entrepreneurs have sought to address bear much resemblance to the local context.
The Foundation’s work to create more relatable role models is carried out by its Scholarship Programme, through which high school learners who have displayed a curious, entrepreneurial mindset, who have established themselves as achievers and who are in financial need are granted scholarships. To date, 208 scholars have graduated from the programme.
Because the Foundation understands entrepreneurship to be a lifelong journey, it also supports students at tertiary level. Allan Gray Candidate Fellows receive funding for university studies, as well as access to resources that will support their entrepreneurial development.
The final arm of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, the Association of Allan Gray Fellows, is a network of graduates who have completed the Fellowship programme and have since gone on to pursue further studies, find employment or start their own businesses. There are currently 442 Fellows, who have created 62 new business, providing 820 new jobs.
Can anyone be an entrepreneur?
Schoeniger’s answer to the question of whether anyone can be an entrepreneur is an unequivocal “yes”. But, he says, if society is to realise the goal of inculcating entrepreneurship as an innate and common human trait, we need to redefine the meaning of the term.
He points to the fact that extensive interviews conducted with underdog entrepreneurs have shown, repeatedly, that even successful entrepreneurs seldom view themselves as such; rather, their entrepreneurship has come about as a by-product of their pursuit of other objectives.
This is key, he states: while few of us consider ourselves future business owners, almost everyone has a desire to innovate. Even more critically, we are all driven to find solve problems that hamper our wellbeing, and that of our communities. What’s more, Schoeniger contends that, in the future, every one of us will be solving problems within ambiguous environments, and with limited resources. This is why it is essential that every student is taught to think like an entrepreneur.
Schoeniger’s view is that the starting point for any policy maker or educator is the premise that entrepreneurialism is a natural part of life. This goes back to his concept of entrepreneurialism as an opportunity discovery process and the understanding we are all intrinsically motivated to find opportunities that will help us further ourselves, while also betting the environment around us.
He also urges policy makers and educators to discard the notion that entrepreneurs are rare individuals who are born with a special ability that must be supported. This requires recognising that the entrepreneurial mindset is a cultural artefact, bred by our social and educational systems – but so, too, is the non-entrepreneurial mindset. It also requires abandoning a binary view of entrepreneurs; the belief that people either are, or are not, set for entrepreneurial success.
One way to do this, he says, is by putting the curriculum in entrepreneurship, rather than putting entrepreneurship in the curriculum. Viewed from another perspective, this entails asking students which societal problems they would like to solve, rather than asking them which profession they would like to follow. In doing so, the current situation where entrepreneurs are created by accident rather than design will fall away.
From a practical angle, Schoeniger suggests that teachers group students together, and give them free rein to explore alternatives and options that may solve the issues that concern them personally. This stimulates curiosity and self-direction in a way that the rote learning model in place at most educational institutions simply cannot do.
Teachers are bound to notice positive spin-offs, as anecdotal evidence shows that students who are exposed to entrepreneurial training usually see an improvement in general academic scores, he notes. It’s easy to see why: when we’re constantly told what to do, our natural curiosity is smothered. When we’re able to forge our own paths, that flame of curiosity is fanned.
Ultimately, entrepreneurialism isn’t an end goal in itself. Schoeniger sees it as an inevitable outcome of allowing people to follow their passions and natural curiosity.
“Entrepreneurship is the framework for thinking that will allow future generations to adapt and thrive in an unpredictable future,” he concludes.