Lebanon has followed other countries in the region and abroad in promoting entrepreneurship to achieve economic growth and to generate future job opportunities. Entrepreneurship is considered a valid tool to help lead the country into a knowledge economy, where the role of information and technological change are the main drivers.
In this context, education can help to foster entrepreneurial behavior, but there is a recurrent debate in blog posts, at panels, and during conferences about the utility of teaching entrepreneurship. Critics say that entrepreneurship education is ineffective because it lacks action orientation, and it cannot teach the essential lessons that entrepreneurs learn simply by failing in the real world. Some even claim that entrepreneurship classes are dispensable, pointing to the likes of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, who never took any formal entrepreneurship education before starting their businesses. Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor, even offers $100,000 grants to students ages 20 and below who are willing to completely drop out of school to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions through learning by doing.
Beyond the practical
Such comments relate mainly to the technê part of entrepreneurship. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, technê denotes technical know-how—in this case, the knowledge of how to manage a business. Most people associate entrepreneurship with the creation of venture-backed high growth firms, like the companies that make up Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurship classes are therefore focused on acquiring business skills. Syllabi include such topics as business plan writing, how to prepare financial projections, entrepreneurial communication (how to deliver compelling pitches to investors), risk mitigation strategies for startups, entrepreneurial marketing, and other practical skills. A common way to measure educational effectiveness is through the number of new startups and entrepreneurs a program generates. This may be an imperfect measure, however, as it has led to universities, business schools, and incubator and accelerator programs resembling each other more and more, as they focus on pushing students toward starting new ventures and entering entrepreneurship competitions—often prematurely. Currently, the strongest emphasis in entrepreneurship education is placed on technê, or on learning how to manage a company. Yet, entrepreneurship (and innovation) are not about managing what is there already; entrepreneurship is a problem-solving process that is based on a different mindset than management.
This mindset proactively seeks out new opportunities and solutions and questions conventional assumptions on how to do things. Entrepreneurally-minded people seize opportunities and act upon them. They are willing to take risks, and focus on adaptive execution, which involves collaboration with others—often even competitors. The entrepreneurial mindset revolves around identifying problems and solving them.
In Lebanon, entrepreneurial learning has implications that go beyond churning out business startups. Samir Kassir once coined the term “Arab malaise” to describe “the very widespread and deeply seated feeling that Arabs have no future, no way of improving their condition.” In the Middle East and North Africa, Kassir argued, there was a prevailing feeling of powerlessness: the powerlessness of being a lowly pawn on the geopolitical chessboard, the powerlessness of underdevelopment, the powerlessness of living under authoritarian politics. Widespread corruption, weak state institutions, and, in many countries, excessive state control have long dominated societies and drained their people’s energy and initiatives.
In his book “Startup Rising,” Christopher Schroeder studies the entrepreneurial possibilities and challenges of the Middle East and North Africa and he comes to the conclusion that entrepreneurship represents a bottom-up movement that allows people to get involved and engaged in societal problem-solving—a grassroots approach that counteracts the prevailing and ineffective top-down government strategy. Entrepreneurship education that teaches a problem-solving mindset could play an important role in developing civic engagement since it introduces young people to a different way of thinking than the prevailing Arab malaise, encouraging a mindset that is relevant far beyond simply starting a business.
Teaching an entrepreneurial mindset, then, is a form of citizen empowerment. For this to be a viable possibility, however, we have to treat entrepreneurship teaching more holistically than we do now, with objectives larger than the creation of new firms. We also have to engage all levels of society in the development of an entrepreneurial mindset, but especially the youngest generation. Teaching entrepreneurship should encourage questioning the status quo and thinking large and wide beyond societal constraints. From entrepreneurship, students can learn to develop and defend their opinions, and they can receive the tools to engage with and change the world.
A good example of this is the initiative run by the Asher Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, where student-entrepreneurs connect with and coach high school students from College Central Jounieh. The students help their younger peers identify community problems, for which they then develop viable solutions for change. School students are exposed to entrepreneurial thinking, cultivate leadership skills, and learn to take ownership of community problems—a prerequisite for engaged and proactive citizens.
Entrepreneurial thinking is as important for business development as it is important for an engaged civil society. Not every student aspires to have their own business. But the lessons we can learn from entrepreneurship help develop people who are self-directed and proactive, and who have the mindset to engage in purposeful projects that matter for society.