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Students Learning to Be Entrepreneurs

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The following guest post is from Laurie Curry Daugherty, the Executive Director of the Governor's School for Entrepreneurs in Kentucky.

There's been a lot of hype in the past few years about the role of entrepreneurship in jump- starting the economy. Even TV sitcoms have hopped on the bandwagon poking fun at the culture of tech startups and Silicon Valley. But the fact is, entrepreneurship has always been the backbone of economic vitality in our communities.

For example, in Kentucky, ninety percent of all businesses statewide employ fewer than 50 people. Traditional industries like mining and manufacturing are all but gone, leaving some communities with unemployment rates significantly higher than the national average. Nearly half of the state is within the Appalachian region where poverty rates are double the national average in some areas. These statistics mean the ability to make one's own job and take control of one's own economic future has enormous potential to improve one's quality of life and change outcomes for families and communities. Cultivating talent with 21st century skills necessitates teaching entrepreneurship. No one is ever "stuck" if they believe they can create a solution, forge a new path or re-invent themselves to adapt to any set of circumstances life might throw at them.

By definition entrepreneurship is "the act of managing an enterprise usually with considerable risk and initiative." Successful business owners must think on their feet, stay open to possibilities, take risks and be flexible enough to adjust strategies to changing factors (such as market, economic and political influences). Managing a successful enterprise requires broad competency. Good business people are good decision makers and problem solvers. While these innate qualities cannot be taught, they can be honed and nurtured. It's a matter of teaching students how to think, not what to think.

Traditional business skills classes such as accounting teach what to think. Understanding that debits = credits is important, but learning accounting doesn't teach you how to meet payroll or make decisions to maximize your gross margins and enhance profitability. That requires analytical and creative thinking skills. Entrepreneurship is experiential and by its very nature multidisciplinary. Knowledge is needed of: chemistry, physics, engineering, programming and design to design and build products; algebra, statistics and economics to calculate margins, market share, expenses and revenues; language arts and creative media to advertise, sell and pitch the business and product; and humanities to comprehend the social impact of the business and product. When being entrepreneurs, suddenly students see why algebra, statistics, science, language arts etc. matter.

Kentucky's Governor's School for Entrepreneurs (GSE) is a summer program where teams of high school students create business models with real potential to impact the world. Students see the real-world uses for all the stuff they are learning in school. They are allowed and even encouraged to fail. "Failure is an opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently." (Henry Ford) If students don't fail at some step in the process, they aren't creating anything new. If it's not new it isn't adding value, and without value, success is elusive. GSE provides a safe environment for students to take risks with their ideas in an effort to create something meaningful. GSE pushes students beyond their limits of thinking and doing. Programs like GSE are perfect for those who may be average performers in school, or who don't "get" the establishment or see the relevancy of school "to life." They are already the outliers, the creative thinkers, the dreamers and they have huge potential to be successful entrepreneurs.

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