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business education

‘We need to encourage and value entrepreneurship and it starts at secondary and elementary school where economic education is not what it should be, says HEC Montréal's Michel Patry.Peter McCabe/The Globe and Mail

Quebec business school HEC Montréal has had its finger on the pulse of Quebec commerce since its formation 106 years ago.

Today, according to HEC director Michel Patry, Quebec suffers from an entrepreneur shortage, and with the help of two large donors his school hopes to help fill the gap. National Bank of Canada has given $10-million for an entrepreneurship centre to be housed at HEC, but also for use of students at fundraising partners Polytechnique Montréal and Université de Montréal. Printing and media magnate Rémi Marcoux and his company, Transcontinental Inc., have ponied up $2.5-million for an entrepreneurial academic track in HEC's commerce and, ultimately, MBA programs.

Mr. Patry explains what he hopes to achieve with this cash.

Can you really teach entrepreneurship?

It's been so hotly debated. You can certainly be an entrepreneur without ever having stepped foot in a business school, but I think it helps. It will accelerate your development. Business schools can help test and refine a business plan. You still have to have the spirit and skills – the gusto – to do that. That is why this program is not for everyone. We have to have screening mechanisms to make sure we get the go-getters and the less risk-averse. My conviction is that over the years we can help.

Isn't Mr. Marcoux himself an HEC graduate?

The best publicity for the program is that here is a man who did his BComm by nights, who studied as a part-timer while developing his own business during the day. He will say he has become a much better businessman because he learned the basics of finance, strategy and planning, but of course he had all the skills.

Quebec has some great entrepreneurial breeding grounds, such as the Beauce region that produced Mr. Marcoux. But is something lacking now in the province?

Right on the money. We have a deficit of entrepreneurs. If you look at the data, we are nowhere near where we should be to create new businesses and take over all the businesses whose owners will want to transfer their property in five or 10 years.

What is slowing things down?

That is the $64,000 question. It is a constellation of factors – partly taxation, partly the size of the public sector and some of it is probably the culture of entrepreneurs. We made great strides – there was almost no entrepreneurial class in Quebec 50 years ago. But I think we have to move in bold strides now and we have to spark that growth. The development of this program will modestly but certainly contribute.

Are there deeper economic and cultural factors?

Productivity in Quebec is lagging behind the rest of Canada and the U.S. We have an aging population. All the macroeconomic indicators point the same direction. And as I said, we have a large number of family businesses, many of which will go through a transfer soon.Will we find people who are willing to take over those businesses and make them grow?

It is a major issue in Quebec. We need to encourage and value entrepreneurship, and it starts at secondary and elementary school where economic education is not what it should be. Entrepreneurs are not championed.

My two kids just finished their college [CEGEP] training and I was dismayed by every single course they took in economics. It was mostly a left-wing, statist stance and entrepreneurs were overlooked or depicted as people we should be almost suspicious of, because they are making money. We have to change the culture in our education system. When entrepreneurs appear on the scene, HEC will be there to help them grow and hone their skills. So we have a major task ahead.

Wouldn't the National Bank's $10-million be better used if put into badly needed venture capital?

It is a value chain, so you have to build every bit of the chain. We have some challenges in terms of venture capital, but to be honest, I don't think it is the most critical challenge. I don't think there are many good projects that don't find financing in Quebec. Of course we are nowhere near where the Americans are with venture capital, or some other parts of Canada. But above all, there is the lack of good ideas and entrepreneurs. Hopefully, the young businesses are being developed now.

Were your students in the street during the Quebec tuition demonstrations last year?

No, we didn't lose a single hour of class. It is a bit easier for us – our students are business students. They organized debates on issues of free tuition, capping tuition or so on, but we had no strikes.

Of course, we were visited sometimes by thousands of students from other universities who shared their view of the world. That is part of the game. In most of the professional schools – business and medical students, lawyers, engineers – you didn't have much unrest. It was largely a francophone Montreal-based social sciences and humanities movement. But those are large numbers.

So the new programs are part of your attempt to influence the culture?

It is our mission. The school was created to help develop in francophone parts of Canada, in Quebec, the culture of entrepreneurship and business – and we are doing that.