Entrepreneurship’s Split-Personality Problem
Entrepreneurship as a higher education discipline has something of a split personality. Its roots are in practical instruction and business school curriculum operating as a trade or vocational school, supplying students with skills necessary to manage firms.
In the world of entrepreneurship, this roughly equates to How to Start a Business 101. Consequently, entrepreneurship programs provide practical and hands-on instruction on everything from imagination and ideation to market analysis and business plans. Courses frequently touch on starting businesses both within and outside the classroom.
Many of these aspects are simply expected of entrepreneurship programs, regardless of whether we’re talking about undergraduate majors and minors or graduate degrees. Most entrepreneurship students expect to learn how to become their own bosses during the course of their studies. In general, I’d say we meet these needs quite well.
On the flip side, entrepreneurship is a research discipline focused on empirical studies and theories. This is a significantly different arena, largely because there’s no such thing as theory of what drives success when starting a business or figuring out a future market. Rather, theory addresses how entrepreneurs are different, what makes something entrepreneurial, and the effects of entrepreneurship.
Here’s where the split personality emerges: Practice and theory are often seen as distinct — if not conflicting — goals and activities. Instead, they should complement each other. Entrepreneurs can gain a tremendous amount of insight by understanding how the market works, how to think about value and “demand,” and what effects entrepreneurship has on an economy.
A Multifaceted Theory
Entrepreneurship theory stretches all the way back to economist Richard Cantillon and the early 18th century. Despite that history, it’s still relatively immature as a theoretical field and body of research. Entrepreneurship theory might still be in its adolescence, but we’re making progress.
The theoretical side of entrepreneurship has largely been limited to applying concepts from separate disciplines. While it was firmly rooted in economics before World War II, modern economics has largely turned its back on entrepreneurship because the creative nature of entrepreneurship doesn’t fit formal models for analyzing markets. Others study entrepreneurship with a psychological bent, attempting to figure out what mental processes or states cause individuals to “take the plunge” and start their own businesses. Management and sociology have similarly left their own marks on entrepreneurship theory over the years.
I think of entrepreneurship as the overlap — or gap, I suppose — between psychology and economics. Rather than pure psychological processes, it’s the psychology of taking risks, aiming for the stars, and becoming one’s own boss. Instead of pure economics, entrepreneurship looks at what causes shifts in the economy and what sparks supply and demand curves.