What My Entrepreneurial Career of 20-Plus Years Taught Me About Teaching the Next Generation

Conceptually, what it means to work has completely changed, thanks to increased mobility, ever-increasing digitization, and the gig economy. Within this exciting emerging world, entrepreneurship has taken a front-row seat in the lexicon of even the very young. The concept of the gold watch at the end of a 35-year employment stint has been shelved in favor of exciting possibilities that require calculated risk-taking and a passion to learn.

At the same time, higher education is experiencing a similar disruption. Studies indicate that while around half of college campus students fit within the traditional age framework of 17 to 21, the other half are outside the norm. This latter group is saddled with responsibilities: Seven out of 10 hold jobs, and roughly 20 percent have kids. For them, education sometimes includes cobbling together courses and attending several institutions to earn a four-year degree.

Yet federal reporting on graduation rates hasn’t caught up with reality; it only reports on the success of students who began college as full-time students and remained at the same university all four years. It classifies full-time transfer students as “dropouts” and leaves out the nearly 40 percent of students who attend school on a part-time basis. Luckily, Congress introduced the College Transparency Act to eliminate the gap in data. It’s a positive start and an admission that we don’t know what we don’t know.

At the same time, universities are getting better about changing how we approach lessons and classroom learning to better suit contemporary students’ needs. From my vantage point, I’ve parlayed a lifetime of inventing and growing businesses — with plenty of misses along with the wins — into a chance to reinvent education to reflect our changing societal and corporate needs

Connecting Entrepreneurship and Higher Education
For entrepreneurs, the learning never stops. The journey from success to significance happens through deliberate intentions, not chance. Philosophically, that’s the reason I became involved with Entrepreneurs’ Organization 25 years ago — it’s a peer-to-peer learning group that forces all 10,000 members outside their comfort zones.

When I first started with Entrepreneurs’ Organization, I was riding the wave of a successful product release, Waterbabies. In those pre-internet days, I forged my way without the help that’s available today; the pre-entrepreneurial ecosystem looked much different than today’s landscape. By the time I hit my mid-50s, I wanted to become the advocate and catalyst for future entrepreneurs, hoping to give serious innovators a chance to grasp a thorough understanding of everything from time and money to metrics and milestones.

It was then that UMSL Accelerate was born, thanks to a pioneering dean, Charles Hoffman. With the help of the senior leadership team and all the deans, we set out to change the culture at the University of Missouri-St. Louis by offering the nearly 17,000-member student body — comprised of hard-working, first-generation, diverse learners — the opportunity to get a modern perspective on true entrepreneurship.

What we discovered was that the classroom was ripe for a new method of teaching that championed advocacy and action.

A New Set of Learners
Thanks to the hyperintensity of communication, learners want relevant information now. Instead of finding success through rote memorization or lecture-heavy courses, entrepreneurial types prefer real stories told passionately, not passively.

I’ve had a lot to share with my students, but I set the stage before starting on the success of Waterbabies or the failures of some of my other ventures. My expectation is for them to listen to the story and look for processes and milestones; what they take away will then activate and inform their own journeys.

By inviting audiences to enter a culture of doing rather than being, we inspire them to use critical thinking skills to avoid similar missteps and make wiser choices. It’s a much different shift from a 1980s-inspired curriculum that includes reading books and regurgitating facts, figures, and theorems.

Entrepreneurship: The New Way of Working and a Core Construct of Teaching
Entrepreneurship is not a trend; it’s the new way of being. Even people who don’t start their own businesses can benefit from understanding the importance of scalability, innovation system thinking, design thinking, creative problem-solving, and exercising soft skills in a compressed time horizon.

A sped-up, no-holds-barred, “caffeinated” approach to education arms individuals with the tools necessary without burdening them with yesterday’s practices. Time is a precious commodity, whether in the rigor of degree work or on the job. Those who get actively involved by going to venture cafes, joining entrepreneur clubs, and listening to subject matter experts jump-start their awareness. This creates a sense of urgency that pushes them forward to innovate and collaborate.

Interestingly, I’ve seen firsthand just how thirsty students are for this new wave of education. They eagerly sign up for paid internships to work in the heart of the St. Louis ecosystem with a clean energy startup that requires them to present a two-minute pitch to get the position. What they crave is a compelling experience of classroom theory and definition mixed with real-world problems, a holistic approach to the purpose and possibilities of higher education.

Future Trends and the Role of the Educator
Looking ahead, we can see that automation and artificial intelligence will continue to affect both blue- and white-collar workers. This, coupled with an emerging contractual and freelance workforce, is eroding the traditional employer-employee relationship. Teachers and the institutions they power owe their students an education that helps them think like entrepreneurs, enabling them to more easily pivot when necessary.

With competition at a high point — there are around 300,000 fewer students looking for undergraduate degree programs than in prior years — higher education institutions must adapt or move aside.

Interestingly, many campuses are flooding their rosters with nontraditional students — in other words, the exact people who can most use entrepreneurial-minded curricula. This is a tremendous chance to completely transform their methods of teaching to better inform students and close the skilled workforce information gaps.

If a few decades of being an entrepreneur taught me nothing else, it’s that when the world is changing, it’s important to pay attention. Ignoring what up-and-coming students of all ages want and need to be successful, whether that’s starting a business or simply having an entrepreneurial outlook, is a hindrance to success. A better approach is to allow the winds of change to guide steps for advancement and opportunity.