Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 29, 2019
As regular readers of this column know, I have taught entrepreneurship in prison to some of my favorite felons. I often ask them this question: “What were you thinking?” Whether it was gangs, drugs, assault, robbery, murder, etc. — the universal answer to that question is a simple one — I didn’t think I would get caught.
Now what interests me today is the intersection of entrepreneurship and the current college admissions scandal. In 1975, there were 100 programs in colleges in the United States offering some kind of degree or diploma or certificate in entrepreneurship. Today the number is approaching 1,000. And in terms of just courses, in 1985 there were 250 and today it is more than 5,000, including college incubators. It does indeed appear that entrepreneurship is the “hot major.”
OK, stay with me here. I have “taught” entrepreneurship at SDSU and at UCSD and in prisons, as well as a being on a raft of panels and giving speeches. Spoiler alert: I do not think you can teach someone to be an entrepreneur. Rinse and repeat. It is not a skill like being a doctor or lawyer that has a body of work that can be learned.
What I do think is that you can teach someone “to think in an entrepreneurial way.” You can teach principles that align with and inform how to think in that way, but the being an entrepreneur is not (in my humble opinion) an outcome that can be learned like being a master mechanic or a certified electrical engineer.
The parents who cheated the system to benefit their children were privileged, dishonest, unethical and misguided.
First off, given their money and position, they for sure assumed they wouldn’t get caught. Figuring you won’t get caught as a baseline model is a low odds bet at best. Just talk to my inmates. Second, and more significantly, they thought that the school defined the child. If Betty got into USC, then her future would be assured, regardless of whether she studied or achieved. It was as if the name of the school would smooth the rest of her life.
And to some extent, this thing called entrepreneurship has taken on the similar trappings of getting into the right school. I concede that if your goal is to be on the Supreme Court, going to Yale Law School is a good idea, and a Harvard or Stanford MBA makes a nice wall decoration. But of the CEOs of the Fortune 500, less than 30 percent went to an elite school and even less went to an Ivy League School.
Further, if you study the founder/CEOs of the most successful science and technology companies, the “right school” did not play any significant factor at all. (Some never went to or finished college.) There is a famous book by New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.”
So here is where I come down. The cheating scandal was outrageous. It speaks of a multitude of sins. And if the child was in on it, or just knew about it and allowed it, then even worse. You might believe that you can buy your child a seat at that exclusive table, but the truth is you can only rent it — until you are caught and exposed and evicted.
And this thing called entrepreneurship is not a golden ticket either. You can graduate with that degree. But when you come to see me for a job, my first and only question is what skills do you have, not where did you go to school.
The dark secret about entrepreneurship education is that it only qualifies you to get a cheap car and start out on a deeply rutted road on which previous multitudes have broken down. That degree does not give you the burning desire to achieve nor does it entitle you to riches. The stuff that drives people to create is not learned. It is in your losses and in your DNA; it is from your pain and from your past. And there is no right school that will smooth all the bumps.
And finally, those children might turn to their wealthy parents and ask — “What were you thinking — about me”?
Rule No. 607
Graduated from Podunk U, did just fine.