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The Case for Entrepreneurship Education in 2023

Ivan Cestero

This article makes one of the best cases we have seen for making entrepreneurship education mainstream if we want to close the growing gap between (i) the types of innovative programming offered at extremely well resourced schools vs under-resourced schools, and (ii) the gap between the skills schools teach and the skills demanded by employers.

What a simple, meaningful new year's resolution from Matt Barnes: “Let's make 2023 the year that normalizes Youth Entrepreneurship.” 

Entrepreneurship is the superfood of the education innovation world. Like moringa or acai, it's got everything educators and employers need in one exotic package, but it's challenging to distill and provide at scale to hungry people with limited budgets! Sitting at the intersection of PBL, design, interest-based and personalized learning, and industry partnership, I believe it's the single biggest lever we can pull to drag schooling into the 21st century.

And, more than any other concept, it encompasses the agony and ecstasy of ed innovation today. So much promise! And but so much pain! Here's why every single American teenager should participate in a "build your own business" or "tackle a real world problem" project:

Some NFTE stats validating their entrepreneurship program and leadership in the space

  • Entrepreneurial soft and hard skills are the most in-demand by employers across sectors, especially high-growth, tech, and white collar; while freelance and gig economy sectors are built on these skills. More employers are looking for candidates with startup experience (including failures) rather than elite degrees because the former corresponds better to the core project management, resilience, and resourcefulness they are seeking (which are costly to train in-house). This toolkit drives the broader credentialing debate unfolding in the workforce development space, in which applied skills or microcredentials trump brand-name degrees.

  • A compelling lifelong learning model places entrepreneurial mindset at the core of its theory of change. "The 60 Year Curriculum" examines education in the transformational context of our shift to a Global Network model, from its predecessors the Factory and the Office. The ongoing formal and informal learning needed over our adult lives is antithetical to compliance-based schooling. It requires an empowering pedagogy, with students as "consultants and entrepreneurs" in a world where learning revolves around transferrable skills and assessment around deliverables and portfolio. Or, as I say to students: this is not about starting companies but about learning how to learn and applying that learning in visible, measurable ways.

The 60 Year Curriculum evolution of educational models.

  • Entrepreneurial extracurricular programs are among the most popular and successful offerings globally, filling a massive hole left by archaic schools/curricula. Movement started in the summer school space (Summerfuel offered programs in collaboration with prestigious universities; I taught social enterprise mini-courses for teens at NYU) and after-school programs (where leading in-school providers Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and BUILD started). More recently we've seen global online clubs complementing instruction with community and expert access, led by The Knowledge Society (TKS). Now the wave of Covid-influenced online and hybrid schools, plus global competitions like Schmidt Futures RISE scholarship or the YCM Challenge, and the new YEA award, are focusing on entrepreneurial project-based learning.

  • It's having a cultural moment: entrepreneurs young and old are more visible and influential than ever before. And it's not just shallow influencers who are gaining attention (though this is a problem!)-- it's the Greta Thunberg activists, Shark Tank teens, and young, tech "thought leaders" who are inspiring a new generation to "start something new." Online tools like YouTube and cohort-based courses will further democratize access and grow the audience. Yet beyond the trendiness and hagiography of "heropreneurship," the truth is that hustling is hard. And it remains something most youth must cultivate on their own time and resources. Only a systemic approach will bring entrepreneurship beyond the 5% of kids crazy, determined, or privileged enough to pursue it in depth...

  • ...which makes it a massive equity problem. Because entrepreneurship resources-- particularly social capital, apprenticeships and startup funding-- remain limited to mostly privileged demographics, it is one of the biggest equity levers schools/districts can pull. Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), BUILD, WeThrive Hub, Cambio Labs, and others thus focus on under-resourced public and charters, but growth remains slow. Meanwhile, well-resourced public and private schools almost universally include entrepreneurship programs and often benefit from a high degree of parental involvement and access-- the notorious "friends & family" round. We must democratize "friends and family" for all.

One of Build's in school offerings - pioneered over many years as a leader in the space

  • Scaling entre. is one of the best ways to tackle our massive education to employment gap, i.e. finding sustainable ways to connect schools and companies. This move will define the next era of schooling and unlock tons of value left on the table by the current siloed approach. While students understand how business works in practice and gain access to entre- or intrapreneurial environments, companies will develop talent pipelines, reduce entry-level churn, and deepen their own culture and impact. More on that here and here.

  • It remains one of the best ways to bring authentic interest-driven learning to schools. There is no authentic school reform without a major role for interest-driven, passion projects, and self-directed learning. Ask any entrepreneurship teacher for their favorite stories, and invariably you'll hear about how students who otherwise hated school or performed poorly thrived in the entrepreneurship setting. It is often the social-emotional component that is most rewarding for students, teachers and parents. Kids come alive in customer discovery, validating a hunch, or improving and presenting a prototype. The need to engage multiple disciplines and be held accountable for results helps young people discover talents and interests in a new way, while unambiguously spotlighting deficits. Whether student solutions actually sell or grow or incorporate is of secondary concern. To my anti-capitalist friends, I say: anyone critiquing entrepreneurship as a way to entrench our corporate/capitalist culture is stuck in old thinking.

  • Indeed, entrepreneurship is a great vehicle for going beyond theory and actually practicing-- and critiquing-- capitalism. This is often overlooked. The simple "traditional vs impact/social entrepreneurship" lens is one of the best critical thinking exercises a teacher can facilitate. It’s a concrete way to begin a critical, complex discussion that will shape students' lives and the world they will inherit. We cannot leave this conversation to business leaders and policy makers-- all young people should have skin in the game. Similarly, in a discursive context in which critique, cleverness, and mockery are currencies, we must understand the value of action over thought. Roosevelt's "man in the arena"  call for active citizenship has never been more salient. Broke: calling people out for being problematic. Woke: helping people be part of the solution.

  • Entrepreneurship is, furthermore, a trojan horse for design and systems thinking, and related mental models, which have even broader applications and cognitive benefits. Many of the most exciting school and learning models emerging today are designing backwards from these core frameworks and experiences. The salient theme here is integrated real world work in direct collaboration with professionals. Big Picture Learning, One Stone Inc., Iowa BIG, Design Tech High, and many other unique high schools do this-- but it's hard to build and harder to scale. At the undergrad level, entrepreneurship is mainstreaming more rapidly, but few schools are enabling true systems and integrated, cross-sector thinking. That's why LIS: The London Interdisciplinary School was created. In the future, Farnam Street's Mental Models project will have a classroom version (or spawn its own school?!).

  • Entrepreneurship is also ripe for gamification, a growing and effective way to deepen and personalize learning for students, based on proven principles of play. Similar to its cousin design thinking, projects can be articulated in clear phases for a roadmap and sense of telos; feedback loops and rewards are built in; teams can compete with each other; there are many tools at their disposal; and of course user validation is a great motivator. In the entrepreneurial context students can aim for the stars while celebrating failure along the way. I'm excited about how Cambio Labs' Journey platform gamifies this work and offers concrete point-based rewards. We'll see lots of gamified, hybrid, and direct video game learning in the next decade, but the entrepreneurship approach will require real-world engagement and boast real world outcomes.

Cambio Labs' Journey platform signals a gamified and broader application for entrepreneurship education

  • A majority of the best group and individual student projects I’ve seen were in an entrepreneurship class or of a highly entrepreneurial nature. I’ve had students take on homelessness, waste reduction, education reform, community revitalization via sports, developing world advocacy etc. But it can be as simple as e-commerce and Google adwords, a current obsession of some Portal students. Most are focused on making money, but they're actually empowering themselves by iterating quickly and building resilience, and sharing their learnings with a growing hive community. Educators should harness this resource and empower 11th or 12th graders to teach their passion formally, infusing this energy into school culture beyond a single class or afterschool club. Students as builders and co-creators (rather than "founders," which is limiting) is a critical component of school reinvention.

  • Students (mine and others) continue to report that entrepreneurship was their best or most impactful learning experience in high school. Notably, this goes for failures as much as (even more than) successes: most teenage startups won’t be successful or sustainable, but they will unlock a sense of empowerment, creativity, and collaboration. Multiple ex-students now building in crypto, the metaverse, AI etc told me their high school entrepreneurship experience accelerated their focus, direction and leadership in college, opening further doors. Students who have run workshops, hosted conferences, tutored kids from other schools, pursued a truly deep mastery project, and failed forward have a comparative advantage for whatever comes next. Increasingly, entrepreneurship will help young people skip college and debt entirely and move into more focused areas of study or work.

So what is holding us back?

For these and more reasons, lack of entrepreneurship education supply can’t be a question of lack of real-world demand. Rather, it’s a function of the outdated curricular, leadership, and teaching certification structures that have cheapened learning, stifled talent and undermined innovation. This is one of the most glaring indictments of American public education. That's a story for another time (Transcend's Out of the Box report diplomatically outlines the barriers to innovation, and suggests paths forward).

The salient point here is that the entre-ed industry is at an inflection point. It has been the "Next Big Thing" for at least a decade now. I’ve seen so many networks and extracurricular providers come onto the scene. Countless heroic efforts by entrepreneurial educators making magic within the constraints of a single elective period. And so much spilled ink. Yet, our emerging post-Covid age signals a sweet spot for entrepreneurship to move from the innovators and early adopters into the early majority stage, where many more students at more traditional schools may benefit-- possibly without radical changes to the larger school superstructure.

These trends have been discussed elsewhere and include: tech capability (the emergence of platforms and reliable virtual meeting software); accessible, high quality content (via YouTube etc); an emerging best practice for hybrid learning (combining global digital learning with in-person, local experiences), increasingly acute industry needs and investment in employer education; mounting parent/student frustration; and, finally, the growth in student/family choice movement and relevant policy changes, especially ESA's. None of these relatively new developments will be reversed. All will put deeper pressure on archaic structures to change. Entrepreneurship, being a superfood that packs a big punch, is a high-lever move for schools, families, and policy makers.

Of course, it's not a magic potion and doesn't solve all the problems facing schooling, but I can't think of a better place to start. The statistics, grass roots desire, success of pioneer programs, and availability of successful entrepreneurs/industry partners are all there.  We must remain active at all levels of theory and practice to support this work.

To that end, I’m currently wrapping planning for Portal Schools Project Consults: small teams of Portal students engage in immersive design challenges with 7 companies to tackle real problems they face. This is an immersive introduction to design, entrepreneurship, and real work that will inform students’ next steps in entrepreneurship or capstones. Coming articles will move from high level framing to work on the ground. Stay tuned!

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