Home The Role of Education in Entrepreneurship

The Role of Education in Entrepreneurship

On Wednesday of this week, Flickr and Hunch co-founder Caterina Fake wrote a provocatively titled blog suggesting that wanna-be entrepreneurs should drop out of college. She based this opinion on the amount of successful companies founded by drop-outs, including Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Microsoft, as well as the drop-outs she finds herself investing in as an angel. But should education play such an insignificant role in entrepreneurship? The answer is not as simple as some think.

As with many blogs by intellectual authors, the comments they elicit are often as good, if not better reads that the original post itself. As for Fake’s post about dropping out of college, this is certainly the case. The notably civil discussion ignited in the comments by Fake’s intentionally comment-baiting title and post are some of the most interesting perspectives on entrepreneurial education I’ve yet to read.

“College works on the factory model, and is in many ways not suited to training entrepreneurs… Entrepreneurship works on the apprenticeship model.”
– Caterina Fake

A commenter by the name of “Anonymous Coward” pokes holes in Fake’s argument about successful companies founded by drop-outs with an exhausting list of companies founded by college grads (some even with masters and doctoral degrees). Some of these companies include










, all of which are fairly high-tech companies likely benefiting from their founders’ educations.

Another reader, David Whiteman, rebukes the Jobs/Gates/Zuckerberg/Williams argument by pointing out that “they became successful entrepreneurs after they dropped out but that doesn’t imply causation.” One of the sentiments largely agreed upon by the commenters is that there are valuable lessons learned and resources gained by attending college, and that it shouldn’t be avoided all together.

Whether Fake intends to say that entrepreneurs should either drop out or avoid college altogether is unclear, but most agree that being a drop-out may indeed be a good strategy. Instead of ignoring college and starting a company, the best solution may be to attend college, learn the early basic lessons, gain access to resources and contacts, and begin the early stages of your company while still enrolled. Then, if the company takes off, leave school. If it doesn’t, then you didn’t drop out for nothing and you can continue your education and even attempt another company.

Aside from the argument for or against attending college, there is an interesting point Fake brings up about college that got me thinking: “College works on the factory model, and is in many ways not suited to training entrepreneurs. You put in a student and out comes a scholar,” she says. “Entrepreneurship works on the apprenticeship model.”

While I think this is largely true among most universities, I also believe this trend is changing. Steve Blank argued recently that business schools need to evolve or branch into entrepreneurial schools. Most business programs prepare students for Fortune 500 companies with traditional business practices, which are still practical lessons for students looking to go down that road. But a student looking to found a startup has different needs.

Some schools are doing more than others to provide entrepreneurial training. One school whose name I continually hear as the alma mater of new startup founders is Babson College, which topped Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of the top programs in the nation. Others aren’t doing so well keeping up. Some of the startup-minded people in my area criticize the local universities for their paltry entrepreneurial efforts, and other business schools are stuck in their old ways of teaching more traditional business practices.

Can true entrepreneurial education work in the current university system? Will these colleges start losing students to smaller schools with highly focused entrepreneurial programs? These are some of the more deep-thought questions derived from this discussion, and the answers could change over time. Right now, I don’t think entrepreneurial training is working as well as it could in the current college system, but there are things to be taken advantage of.

Entrepreneurs can potentially make the system work for them by attending college for the resources and contacts and founding their companies while still enrolled. As Steve Blank pointed out, TechStars, Y Combinator and other incubators are the early stages of true entrepreneurial education systems. These could one day grow up into full blown specialty schools, challenging the more traditional business schools that are slow to change. As for whether to go to college, avoid it or drop out, I think one commenter on Fake’s blog, who goes by Stephen, summed up the college question best.

“About the only thing that you cannot (okay you can, but at your own peril) do, is nothing,” says Stephen. “So, drop out of college – or don’t …. but get after something, cause it’s all up for grabs – and quite frankly I’m thrilled about that.”

Photo by Flickr user Herkie.

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