Institutionalizing Entrepreneurship and the Education Tradeoff

Through one of my new favorite “social discovery” services LetsLunch.com, I had the pleasure of lunch with Sarah Lacy. She brought me her latest book Brilliant Crazy Cocky, a tome to the universal entrepreneurial spirit in six countries she surveyed last year. I read most of it over the weekend (and recommend it highly).

One point Sarah made at lunch (and I’ve always wanted to hear) is the inherent contradiction that startup incubators weren’t the best places for entrepreneurial companies, and therefore, entrepreneurs themselves. The most overt supporting evidence is that even the most visible incubators haven’t launched billion dollar companies. The assumption Sarah makes, and chronicles in her book, is entrepreneurs thrive best in the “wild” where they work within distinct, even foreboding parameters, financial and institutional, that require creative thinking and networking to reach next levels.

Incubators provide a nominal financial safety net and prescribe a blanket strategic system for building a startup, and this fosters a kind of groupthink. For example, ever been to a tech conference like Web 2.0 and baffled by how little you learn listening to tech pundits who haven’t applied their practices to a real business? I learn more from real estate technology conferences about how to implement practical solutions. Incubators tend to be run (and overrun) by younger technophiles, and there may be a gap between the products they build and the users they serve because the institutional connections to the real world business or industry may be lacking. In earlier eras, MBA programs have been criticized for inculcating academic business cultures to 20-somethings that were similarly pragmatic only to the point of getting into McKinsey or Goldman.

And now we see similar arguments about how college education is overpriced based on the perceived return of investment on the cachet of an Ivy League degree versus the real life return. Over the weekend, Sarah discusses how Peter Thiel believes college education has become overvalued due to the trade off problem of a huge student debt burden for the implied earning potential value of a name brand degree. Pursuing a Stanford degree and getting into Y-Combinator are prestigious, but if it instills an attitude of entitlement and creates an environment in which hard work becomes secondary to playing the “game”, then the goal of contributing meaningfully to society might get diluted. Peter Thiel’s proposed solution is to bypass the four year college process by offering smart kids $100,000 over two years to start companies. Throw them into the “wild”.

Yes, these are three examples on the value of their particular brand of education – the MBA, the incubator, and the Ivy League degree – but it all points to the larger picture that education in today’s world, where everything is changing much faster than any textbook re-edit, needs to also adapt just as quickly to be relevant. I think Sarah and Peter are on to something with their concept that baptism by fire may be the best educational route for young entrepreneurs.

About Pat Kitano

Patrick Kitano works with brands in developing hyperlocal engagement solutions and is administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is the author of The Local Network on Street Fight, and is reachable via Twitter @pkitano and email pkitano@gmail.com.

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