Educating transformative entrepreneurs at university

A growing number of universities around the world offer programmes that educate students to be entrepreneurs. This is an exciting and promising trend in light of the global youth employment crisis. Reliance on existing businesses to create jobs cannot possibly resolve this situation – a focus on business creation is essential. Institutions of higher education need to equip students to create a vast number of new enterprises and new jobs.

But what are the actual impacts of the expanding number of entrepreneurship programmes? What approaches work? How do these innovations challenge and change university processes and pedagogy? There is increasing practical experience that can inform these debates and guide action in the months and years ahead.

An important body of information is emerging from the Youth Economic Participation Initiative, a partnership of The MasterCard Foundation and the Talloires Network, the largest global coalition on university civic engagement and social responsibility.

A primary outcome of this effort is an unanticipated one – what started out as an effort to advance economic participation became more fundamentally about educating entrepreneurs who are also transformative leaders, leaders for community change.

The original impetus

The Talloires Network was motivated to develop this initiative because member universities were both concerned about employers’ criticisms about graduates’ job preparedness and pleased about students’ positive assessment of the value of their involvement in community service work. So we worked with The MasterCard Foundation to co-design the Youth Economic Participation Initiative or YEPI.

MasterCard Foundation President and CEO Reeta Roy commented that this effort was “looking for innovation, projects which are bringing interesting partners together; but we are also looking for ones which can provide some hard evidence of what works and why”.

In planning YEPI, we identified a series of disconnects between student experience at universities and the necessary preparation for employment or entrepreneurship. We found that most students do not have access to key networks or mentorship – factors that are crucial to making the transition to full economic participation.

Employers report that incoming employees often have the technical competence but lack important ‘soft business’ skills.

Moreover, students are completing degrees in environments where there are either few available jobs or where the positions that are available are ones that do not align with their passions, interests or unique skills. Students often feel compelled to make choices around their careers that compromise their values, sense of purpose and commitment to community and place.

University-based programmes worldwide

YEPI provided three-year demonstration grants to eight university-based programmes in developing countries, each of which had already developed innovative approaches to advancing youth economic participation.

The group includes four in Africa – the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the University of Zimbabwe, the International Institute of Water and Environmental Engineering in Burkina Faso and a consortium based at the University of Rwanda, Nyagatare campus (the partners were Makerere University in Uganda and Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences in Tanzania).

In Latin America participants were the University of Veracruz in Mexico and Austral University of Chile; and in Asia, they were Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan and the National University of Malaysia.

YEPI programmes at these partner universities offer a broad variety of for-credit and non-credit courses and workshops, organise mentors for student entrepreneurs, encourage and support students to start new businesses and incubate nascent student enterprises – providing additional training, mentoring, networking and financial support.

Educating ‘transformative entrepreneurs’

The YEPI Learning Partner, a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota in the United States, found that the most effective education for entrepreneurship is also education for transformative leadership. As we sought to conceptualise what we were finding, we came up with the term ‘transformative entrepreneurship’.

Transformative leadership is ‘adaptive leadership’, as it has been defined by Harvard University’s Ron Heifetz and his colleagues – learning how to diagnose and interrupt current practices, to identify obstacles and to innovate new approaches that will overcome these barriers to desired next practices.

A transformative entrepreneur is skilled at product development and also at identifying and mobilising community assets. She or he knows how to prepare a business plan and also to engage community partners.

The YEPI partner universities all use engaged, experiential pedagogies. Vibrant youth entrepreneurship programmes require not only a strong curriculum and talented facilitators, but also pedagogies that move beyond the normal practices within higher education today.

Participants are invited and supported to challenge everyday ideas and norms that prevent them from being entrepreneurial.

Students are helped to see themselves differently and to take on new roles. Students are learning by doing – both within the classroom and also in the surrounding community.

Students report that they highly value these participatory, publicly engaged and experiential elements of the programmes. One commented: “By virtue of training in the [entrepreneurship] classes you get pushed out of the box. At school you are taught to concentrate on getting a first-class degree. This is thinking within the box. This project is about thinking outside of the box. We are taught to solve problems.”

What next?

‘Disruptive’ pedagogies are rare in higher education; despite their great potential, they remain underused and often marginalised. The YEPI partner programmes have much to teach higher education about pedagogical approaches that can support multiple learning outcomes. For youth entrepreneurship to expand and thrive at universities, public engaged, participatory, community-based and experiential learning has to become mainstream.

The YEPI programmes declare that economic participation and community leadership cannot be separate or competing goals. They are demonstrating that higher education can support vibrant and robust youth entrepreneurship. ‘Transformative entrepreneurship’ may be a path to a far greater scale of impact.

This experience of universities in several developing countries also illustrates how youth entrepreneurship supports not only transformation among students and young people, but can also catalyse significant changes within higher education. It can help to address the common criticism that standard entrepreneurship programmes are too narrowly vocational. And it can reconnect the entrepreneurship aspirations of higher education to core principles and learning outcomes of a liberal arts education.

There is now a marvellous opportunity to reach for new levels of exchange and collaboration among practitioners of transformative entrepreneurship. This approach responds more completely to how young people are thinking, feeling and living their lives.

We urge universities and funders to explore transformative entrepreneurship as a strategic focus that integrates our aspirations with respect to economic participation and community leadership. Let’s expand the use of the kind of disruptive and experiential pedagogies that have the potential to prepare young women and men to address more effectively the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow.

Ross VeLure Roholt is associate professor, School of Social Work (Youth Studies), University of Minnesota, United States. Jennifer Catalano is a writer and consultant and was formerly director of YEPI at the Talloires Network at Tufts University, United States. Professor Robert M Hollister is founding executive director emeritus of the Talloires Network and senior advisor to the University Social Responsibility Network. Alexander Fink is a research fellow in youth studies at the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota.