Enterprise is only learnt outside the classroom

Tricia Fox shares an alternative view to 'dragon' Peter Jones' theory of teaching enterprise in schools. Picture: Graeme Hart
Tricia Fox shares an alternative view to 'dragon' Peter Jones' theory of teaching enterprise in schools. Picture: Graeme Hart
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Dragons’ Den star Peter Jones has called for children to be taught enterprise at school. Tricia Fox, founder and chief executive of marketing agency Volpa, disagrees.

I’m not sure where or when I learned to be an entrepreneur, but I am 100 per cent certain it wasn’t in a classroom.

Now, I have a degree in marketing. And that’s a useful degree to have when growing a business. But it’s not made the difference between success and failure as an entrepreneur.

Professor Howard Stevenson of Harvard Business School defines entrepreneurship as “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to the resources available” and I’m not going to argue with him even one little bit.

Teaching children finance will show them how to handle money. Teaching sales will show them how to acquire customers. Teaching people management will prepare them for working in teams.

But I’ve not yet encountered an academic, or even practical, approach to “making something out of nothing”, unless we’re talking alchemy, but even that has a magical element to it.

And that’s what entrepreneurs do. No money? There’s always a way. No staff? Let’s see who can help. No market? Let’s see how we create one.

Entrepreneurship is, I believe, a set of personality attributes which together mean that when “normal” folk opt out, the entrepreneur keeps going. Why? Because they believe that “it” will happen. And they’ll know “it” when they see it.

Dragon Peter Jones is right that if kids don’t have any experience of enterprise, they’re not going to know what to do. But is that the reason that the UK has nearly one million people out of work today? Because they didn’t learn how to be enterprising as kids? I don’t think so. There may be a small segment of the unemployed who will start a business, but it will be an even smaller segment within that who will have the necessary characteristics to make it a success.

Let’s not forget, most small businesses fail within the first 12 months. The statistics are not good. Education can help to a certain extent, but most fail because the person running them is simply not an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurial, yes. Entrepreneur, no.

Anyone can be taught how to open and run a business. But the skills you need to survive in business, you won’t learn in a classroom. And I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur who doesn’t have a solid mix of resilience, adaptability and a complete disregard for the impossible. I have met many successful entrepreneurs, however, who have no business qualifications or even no qualifications at all, who flunked out of school and made their way in the world on their wits and determination alone.

As Sam Altman, author of the Startup Playbook, puts it, “You have to have an almost crazy level of dedication to your company to succeed.” And entrepreneurship is the closest thing to crazy I have ever seen.

The business books call it an appetite for risk. I have absolutely zero appetite for risk. But when the chips are down, I’ll push forward anyway. What’s the worst that can happen?

Will teaching it in schools increase the number of entrepreneurs in the UK? Probably not. But it might increase the chances of success of those who will start a business. Those business failure rates? That’s the real problem right there. There are roughly 2.5 million active businesses in the UK and another 400,000 start-ups annually. But 328,000 fail. Every year.

That’s where education plays a part.

But those other skills and attributes? Resilience? Adaptability? Disregard for the impossible? You learn those from failing. From having problems to solve. From being told no, you can’t. No, you shouldn’t. And doing it anyway.

If you want to really create a generation of future entrepreneurs, teach kids how to face adversity. Climb hills, run marathons, campaign against the government. Doesn’t matter what, as long as they are up against it, and can’t walk away. They’ll learn that essential resilience that will really get them through.

Get them solving problems. Make sure they don’t have any resources with which to work, only their own resourcefulness. Real problems. Drop them off in Glasgow with no money and tell them to get home to Edinburgh and give them a deadline. The health and safety bods probably won’t like this approach, but it would help them learn the key skills of resourcefulness and adaptability. And they are going to need qualities like those by the bucket loads.

Encourage them to embrace their very own brand of crazy. Stop trying to get them to fit in. They will never quite fit in. They need to know that keeping going past a certain point is what makes them special. Athletes have it. Entrepreneurs have it. Performers have it. Because when logically you should stop, you just can’t.

Now tell me, how do you teach that?

- Tricia Fox, founder and chief executive of Volpa