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Starting up a company like Facebook takes more time than one has in a university entrepreneurship program. (Paul Sakuma/AP)
Starting up a company like Facebook takes more time than one has in a university entrepreneurship program. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

Debate This: Innovation in Education

Why students are natural entrepreneurs Add to ...

Recently, universities have begun to teach and support entrepreneurship among all their students. Yet, in spite of the hype, there is a lot of room for improvement.

Before the modern industrial economy, nearly everyone was an entrepreneur. Butchers, bakers, and tradespeople are excellent examples. Once means of mass production were developed, however, everyday entrepreneurship took a back seat as more and more people became employees.

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Now, the advent of the Internet has helped to even the playing field between individuals and corporations. Authors no longer need to seek out a publisher: They can contract the printing services themselves, and promote it on the Internet. Apparel and jewellery manufacturers can use WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter to promote their products practically for free. Success stories of modern entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg propel once-passive employees to start side projects on Kickstarter in their spare time. People now have the freedom to find their own voice, an audience, a product, and a business – but only if they’re willing to step away from the crowd and risk failing along the way.

A report released by the Council of Ontario Universities claims that 46 per cent of Canadian postsecondary students want to start a business after graduation. What it doesn’t mention is that many students are already entrepreneurs, often without realizing it.

Students have developed a multitude of ways to make money while in school. Students at the top of their class offer their services as tutors. Underground textbook markets exist on campuses, where students buy, sell, and trade the contents of their libraries to avoid paying full price for books. Some students sell custom apparel such as T-shirts, patches, or hats. Students like myself also work as freelancers, consultants, babysitters, musicians, photographers, writers, and artists. The more socially-inclined individuals among the student population are responsible for the infamous (albeit illegal) keg parties and ‘cup sales’ that happen in university neighbourhoods.

This doesn’t even take into account the students like Ted Livingston who develop multimillion dollar smartphone apps, or my colleagues Matthew Sheridan, Andy Li, and James Strack who have raised $50,000 on Kickstarter for the Nix Colour Sensor.

All of these endeavours require students to develop personality traits that can’t be taught in lecture halls, such as resilience, openness, and adaptability. In addition, student-entrepreneurs expose themselves to a real-world education in marketing, sales, and finance. An entrepreneurial pursuit also demands that student-entrepreneurs become adept networkers, and encourages many to learn about web and visual design.

Although many universities claim to foster innovation and entrepreneurship, they have but one centuries-old education model which is proving to be entirely incompatible with the amount of time and effort required to develop remarkable innovations like Livingston’s Kik Messenger or Facebook.

Universities must recognize that successful entrepreneurs are individuals who need to have the freedom to self-direct their education. Existing university resources should be adapted to benefit entrepreneurs. Co-op and internship offices should be expanded to provide support for students who need a year (or more) to complete an internship at the helm of their own company. Student-entrepreneurs should be able to put their degree on hold and become ‘stopouts’ instead of ‘dropouts.’ It is often said that life is about the journey, not the destination. I believe that it’s time to recognize that the same can hold true for a university education.

Zachary Strong is in his final year at McMaster University. He is a member of The Globe and Mail’s Student Advisory Council on Facebook.

This is is the last part in a series on entrepreneurship in universities.

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