Can Entrepreneurship be Taught?

MIT professor and entrepreneurship guru Bill Aulet says yes


Some say that the teaching of entrepreneurship is a paradox.

Take Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs – all college dropouts who learned how to be an entrepreneur by doing, rather than by attending classes.

But Bill Aulet disagrees: “They are good role models, but also outliers.”

Coming from an engineering background, Aulet is an entrepreneur-turned- academic who has a 25-year track record of success in business. His first company was founded in the 1980s, after he quit his assistant engineer job at IBM.

Aulet is now senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. His expertise is teaching entrepreneurship.

“My mentor, Edward Roberts, did a first series of research on entrepreneurship,” he said.

“He showed that the more times you are an entrepreneur, the more likely you are to succeed. That’s exactly what happened to me.

“My first time starting a company was not ‘economically’ successful and the company eventually died. The second time was much more successful but even then I still had things to learn and it was reasonably economically successful. By the third time, I had learned the process and that company was very successful. Over this time period, I didn’t get smarter. What happened was I learned how to be an entrepreneur, but you have to learn it intelligently.”

Aulet said that when the right curriculum is taught, schools are the perfect place to promulgate that insider intelligence and provide appropriate training to help students continue to learn once they venture off to the real world.

The business school in Massachusetts focuses on teaching innovation-driven entrepreneurship – different to traditional entrepreneurship teaching.

The curriculum does not teach how to create a new business unit for a company or start a small business.

It is built to nurture ambitious entrepreneurs who can create new types of companies that cut across cultures – the companies that sell innovative products to a regional or a global market.

“The innovation doesn’t have to be just technology,” Aulet said.

“It could be a business model, a process or positioning. The key indicators are what the market looks like for the product of the company and where entrepreneurs can create the most value for target customers with the limited assets at their disposal.

“A lot of my students in Boston are not only looking to selling their products to companies in Boston. They are selling to the entire United States market and beyond. Their goals are to transform the business landscape and create new types of jobs.”

Innovation-driven entrepreneurs are the future because they are doing things that governments and big corporations cannot do, Aulet said.

From experience in the United States, these types of entrepreneurs are creating high-growth businesses and the lion’s share of new jobs.

Aulet has written a book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup, to explain how innovation-driven entrepreneurship can be taught in a disciplined fashion – from whether you should start with an idea, a product or the customers to executing various business strategies.

The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship also routinely hosts free supply-chain and entrepreneurship courses on the online learning platform edX. Students who do well in those classes can opt to take residential classes at MIT, which can lead to a master’s degree.

For educators who want to improve their own curriculum, Aulet recommends a free online platform that the center has built for teachers. The Entrepreneurship Educators Forum also contains teaching materials that Aulet wrote.

“I lay out what the curriculum is and make it available to people. They can discuss the elements in the curriculum in a webinar format,” Aulet said.

“But it’s not just MIT, we are building a community of thought leaders globally to contribute to the knowledge about how to teach rigorous innovation- driven entrepreneurship most effectively – by providing the best course materials regardless of where they come from, it’s truly a community effort to change entrepreneurship education.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on November 24, 2015.