Some students want to be more than employees, but we overlook these potential entrepreneurs

Australia’s higher education system is, more or less, focused on training people to work for other people’s companies. This “employee mindset” leads students to have a vision of being employed as an employee in a good company after graduation. It can prevent students from thinking outside the box, thus becoming an obstacle to entrepreneurial innovation.

The GUESSS (Global University Survey of Student Entrepreneurship) project reports on the entrepreneurial aspirations and underlying drivers of this career choice among students in more than 50 countries. The 2018 GUESSS Global Report found that only 9% of all students intend to become entrepreneurs immediately after graduation. This figure has increased to 17.8% of students by the time of the 2021 GUESSS Global Report.

In Australia, the proportion of direct intending founders (students who intend to be entrepreneurs immediately after graduation) increased from 9.1% in 2018 to 16.1% in 2021.

This significant shift in just three years requires higher education institutions to respond to the entrepreneurial intentions of students. This points to the need to offer a curriculum that helps develop their entrepreneurial skills.

Read more: Albanese promises to support young entrepreneurs to develop startups

How can universities encourage entrepreneurs?

Recent research has shown that entrepreneurship education can stimulate students’ creativity and entrepreneurial ability, thus supporting their entrepreneurial aspirations. Another study found a “statistically significant relationship between management students’ entrepreneurship education, attitude toward entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurial intentions.” The researchers called on universities to provide training modules for students interested in being entrepreneurs.

According to the 2018 GUESSS report, universities can play a significant role when it comes to entrepreneurship. The 2021 GUESSS report sheds more light on this with the finding:

“Entrepreneurial education and entrepreneurial climate at the university are key determinants of entrepreneurial intentions and activities.”

The report also states:

“Businesses run by students are mostly very young and very small. However, entrepreneurs are quite satisfied with their performance.”

Read more: From student to start-up – how a PhD can boost a nascent business

Adding entrepreneurial skills to the curriculum

In response to this gap in the curriculum, we developed an initiative in the Postgraduate Project Management course at the University of Victoria. Working with Michael Jackson, a previous graduate who became an entrepreneur and founded two project management firms before retiring, we created a project that required students to work in groups to develop a project management project startup proposal. The group’s approach was consistent with the findings of the 2021 GUESSS report, which states:

“Founding teams are crucial for both new and active founders. Only about one-third of all firms are founded without a co-founder.”

This initiative challenged the students and took their skills to a whole new level. Their feedback was very positive. One student said:

“I found [this initiative] be extremely realistic with a hands-on approach when trying to start a new business. The professors provided an eye-opening look at the reality of working life and the opportunities it offers.”

Another student said:

“Applying the theory to a real-world example was great. It also helps those who want to start PM [project management firm] in the future.”

Another team member noted:

“This assignment helped me understand what factors to consider and analyze before starting a business and how to apply project management principles in real life.”

I followed up with the highest performing project group members, which led to further insights. The group leader said:

“I’ve always wanted to start my own business […] There are several variables involved in starting a business and the assignment helped us understand and close all the gaps.”

Among the challenges the group faced during the project were disagreements over some tasks, as well as the need for constant communication among team members.

Read more: Encouraging ‘research entrepreneurs’ could be a step backwards for gender equality

What are the key success factors?

Various factors contributed to the success of the group of top performers. Effective communication and team spirit were among the most important. Although the best performing team had members from different backgrounds, they seemed to have created a common ground by holding regular meetings.

Another important factor is the ability to “problem solve”. No group effort can be undertaken without some problems. Facing problems in a group project is not bad in itself, but not being able to solve such problems is a major weakness.

Having a capable team leader is another success factor. One top-performing group member appreciated a team leader who paid attention to detail and was very patient with everyone. The student said the group leader made an extra effort to explain the required work to team members who had difficulty understanding the project requirements.

The ability to think outside the box is another success factor. Students had to put aside many of their preconceptions and apply themselves to the problems that arose. One student said that this project made them think outside the box while making sure their plan was realistic and practical.

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