How universities can advance entrepreneurship education

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Almost one third of university students worldwide report that they plan to be entrepreneurs within five years of graduation, according to a 2021 survey of 267,000 students in 58 countries.

That’s no surprise. Demand for entrepreneurship education internationally spiked by 66% in 2020, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business reported. But even given strong interest from students, the model for educating entrepreneurs at universities is overdue for an update. The biggest reason: entrepreneurship is still often narrowly defined only as the creation of a new venture and therefore remains accessible to just a few.

A February 2023 roundtable discussion concluded that universities have an important opportunity to refocus entrepreneurship education as a global mindset or skillset that can be taught.

The symposium – organised by Lehigh University, Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, the University Alliance Ruhr (representing three German universities) and the German Center for Research and Innovation in San Francisco, the world’s largest funding organisation for the international exchange of students and researchers – explored how best to cultivate public-private partnerships.

Such collaborations among universities, industry and governments are designed to spur long-needed innovation in entrepreneurship education on a global scale.

Mutual benefits

Public-private partnerships demonstrate why and how working across academia, industry and government enhances multidisciplinary entrepreneurial development. Each sector plays an important role in such organisational collaborations.

Higher education institutions, for example, offer a culture that is conducive to developing entrepreneurial talent, faculty with scholarly expertise about entrepreneurship and access to mentorship and alumni networks, among numerous other benefits.

Companies, on the other hand, bring real-world knowledge, hands-on learning experiences for students and opportunities for applied research and development. In turn, government agencies represent funding opportunities and serve as policy-makers to affect systems-level change.

Universities play a pivotal role here. Whereas government agencies or corporations generally lack the infrastructure to connect entities with each other to facilitate entrepreneurship, universities – inherently vested with a mission to advance education, research and service to society – are arguably best equipped to convene all key stakeholders.

A research study conducted through Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, which surveyed educators and practitioners, identified the 11 key attributes of an entrepreneurial mindset, ranging from creativity, imagination and a willingness to take risks, to resilience and tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

Global partnerships

Global partnerships are essential in facilitating study abroad and exchange programmes that create rich pathways for teaching key skills that are relevant to fostering an entrepreneurial mindset, such as risk-taking.

For instance, students in Lehigh’s Global Entrepreneurial Fellowship programme have interned with international startups and worked with company leaders who are confronting real-world business issues and who have different approaches to entrepreneurial thinking. Every summer Lehigh students from all backgrounds and disciplines have devoted eight weeks to full-time internships with startups that are located around the world.

There, the students have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a hands-on education in global entrepreneurship. Students selected for the programme can develop cross-cultural competencies that are typically unavailable through classroom learning. Interns from the programme have joined companies such as CoworkIn (India), Tenl.io (United Arab Emirates) and Zen Educate (United Kingdom), to name just a few.

Global internships

In 2020 the programme partnered with TU Dortmund University to welcome German students and companies. This was made possible by the pivot to remote internships at the height of COVID. Students in the programme have also had the opportunity to engage with entrepreneurs-in-residence at Ashoka University in India, further exposing them to diverse perspectives in global entrepreneurship education.

In the six years since we founded Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, an education-industry partnership between Lehigh University and the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco, we’ve learned some important lessons about how such partnerships can and should be established to educate the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. For starters, these partnerships must be mutually beneficial, our roundtable attendees agreed.

These start-up internship programmes can develop entrepreneurial mindsets and skills in students while meeting the talent development needs of early-stage companies. It’s a win for all involved.

Our partnerships teach students and startups alike how to invest in themselves as entrepreneurial leaders. Such partnerships can also enhance the probability, if not ensure, that entrepreneurial education will be more inclusive and give more students access to knowledge and intellectual capital.

If universities are to fulfil the overarching civic purpose of entrepreneurship – to drive economic growth and well-being – they need to do so inclusively. Through public-private partnerships, universities can serve all students, regardless of discipline, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status or geographic location.

University partnerships with industry and government represent the future for entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship education and the workplace. The only question is how soon all the parties involved will learn to collaborate successfully enough to get us there.

Dr Samantha Dewalt is managing director of Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, an exclusive education-industry partnership between Lehigh University and the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco, United States. Dr Cheryl Matherly is vice-president and vice-provost for international affairs at Lehigh University, United States. Priya Nayar is executive director at the University Alliance Ruhr, a consortium of TU Dortmund University, Ruhr University Bochum and the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.

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