Choose enterprise over the ivory tower

First published in the Financial Times on 22nd May 2012. 

Entrepreneurship is a journey in self-education

Last week one of London’s most successful restaurateurs described to me how he started in the catering trade. Like so many, it is a tale of chance. He trained to become a teacher, but hated it, and so fell into bartending – and from there graduated to waiting tables, and then managing a restaurant. Now he has half a dozen, and his business is booming.

The most fascinating chapter of every business biography is what I call the “formative phase”: the moment when an entrepreneur decides which industry to enter and gets the early breaks. So often it is pure serendipity – there is no grand plan, no career map. It is more of a haphazard stumble, and then a dawning sense of opportunity that is seized upon by those destined to become entrepreneurs.

A formal education for so many professions means an ordered sequence of steps. I accept that this is entirely necessary for many walks of life. But for entrepreneurship there is no syllabus, no degree. It is a journey in self-education.

The reason academics understand entrepreneurs so poorly is that they lead lives so removed from those of most professors. There is an almost complete disconnect between the intellectual class and business founders.

This alienation is a double tragedy. First, it means we don’t know enough about the psychology and character of wealth creators, which makes it harder to frame policy so as to foster more of them.

Second, many of our brightest minds shun the world of start-ups, believing that they are more suited to the serenity of the university campus than the hustle of the market place. I am sure this perception is false – the history of Silicon Valley is crowded with the vital contributions of highly qualified staffers migrating from institutions such as Stanford University and MIT.

Moreover, this rule doesn’t apply in certain cases. When I was governor of the University of the Arts London, I learnt that hundreds of their faculty staff were self-employed, and so were more empathetic to graduates who wanted to own fashion houses, say, or digital design studios. Entrepreneurial instincts can be cultivated even in scholarly surroundings – the two should not be mutually exclusive.

But my sense is that too many of our higher educational establishments often fail to spot entrepreneurial talent. And if they do notice them, they have almost nothing to offer.

Perhaps colleges are simply unsuited to guide such independent, unconventional minds. I recall that my medical tutor was baffled by my pursuit of various early enterprises, although I think he sees the point nowadays.

I firmly believe there are more entrepreneurs out there, stuck in mainstream jobs, who, if pushed, encouraged and advised, could build new businesses. They might be lawyers, architects, civil servants or doctors. These professions all matter greatly, but every field of endeavour could always benefit from more invention – and carrying out such pioneering stuff is incredibly hard within large organisations. Better that innovators work outside the hierarchies and partner with them when it makes sense.

It might be argued that training teachers, doctors, dentists and nurses is nothing to do with capitalism, since almost all toil within the public sector, at least in Britain. But education and healthcare will be transformed in the coming years. Traditional classrooms and hospitals are not productive enough, and private sector technology and input can help this process. We need more entrepreneurs in medicine and learning.

Directions are taken and prejudices formed in our student years and 20s. Grab people young and unleash those enterprising spirits early, and they are likely to have more impact. All universities should be persuading entrepreneur alumni to mentor undergraduates. They should seek angel investors among their donors to back student ideas. Tutors should be encouraged to create spinout companies. And why not found incubators to nurture early-stage businesses?

Entrepreneurs will always carve their own paths. An ability to identify a fortuitous opening is not something that can be easily taught within a prescribed structure. But surroundings that allow those stirrings and initiatives to flourish can help. Educationalists should be alive to the possibilities.