There has been plenty of hand-wringing in recent years over the fate of the traditional business school in the era of start-ups - some say that it must go online, while others argue that entrepreneurial skills should be taught well before university.
There are still others who believe that fundamentally, it is impossible to teach entrepreneurship; the sense of adventure required to dive into the world of a start-up cannot be transmitted through traditional institutions, lectures, and evaluations.
For many, it seems obvious to offer insight on how to found a business, as well as how to analyse or promote one. However, there are no standard texts and no canon for how this should be taught, which makes it a very different speciality than economics, finance, or business theory. If a subject cannot be handled with consistency, can it ever belong in the Academy?
Jon Smith, one of the founders of student literacy platform Pobble (formerly Lend Me Your Literacy), sees a legitimate place for traditional business schools in the entrepreneurship sector.
"People say you can’t teach entrepreneurship, but what does that mean? Starting a business can be a weird life, with ups and downs, and it takes a certain type of personality to weather that well. So the most effective way to teach entrepreneurship is as a cultivation of the person, enhancing their chances of success by providing them with tools."
A recent MBA graduate from the London Business School, Smith has found that the structures of traditional schooling have reinforced the business; in his words, he now reacts "with a framework, instead of a gut instinct."
It would be wrong to assume the majority or start-ups are led by energetic, young, tech-savvy 'disruptors' with time on their side and access to capital; nowadays, businesspeople come from wide-ranging backgrounds. According the US-based 2015 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity, business founders are becoming less white (18 per cent less over the last eight years), and more internationally-focused, with over 28 per cent of new businesses being founded by immigrants. More and more, people are starting businesses later in life, perhaps juggling family responsibilities, and coming into the game without a formal business education.
In that way, programmes that focus on entrepreneurship may be the right tool for the job, levelling the playing field to provide more diverse points of view, and allowing people to pick up the skills they need to work now.
For example, for many starting a new business, the instinct can often be to begin in a low-risk way, gathering information and conducting interviews, but this can leave start-ups stalled in the early stages, eager to roll out a fully-developed product before establishing how they will function as a company. Says Smith, "We learned to provide a minimum viable product, and then iterate from there. Entrepreneurs are born, not made; education, however, can have an impact on success."
But these are skills of the traditional business school, rather than anything particularly original to entrepreneurship education. Perhaps, then, what is needed is a more flexible model where those at a different stage in life or their business’s development can pick and choose what they need from the formal classroom. That at least is the premise of a recent TechCrunch argument that accelerators could replace business schools. The challenge will be to maintain the relationships that the traditional model supports; according to Smith, the “incubator” environment and the mentorship of faculty who have started businesses themselves created a sort of club that provided an invaluable community.
The way forward for business is, as ever, a bit unclear. What is clear, however, is that the demographics of entrepreneurs are changing, and with it, so should our education system.