Why no business school can teach entrepreneurship

 Now this might seem a rather strange title for my contribution to the AMBA blog site. Particularly as the association has been kind enough to ask me to be one of the judges of its MBA Entrepreneurial Venture award later this month. An award designed to showcase the important role business education can play in the development of successful companies. But then I am a PR professional by training and experience so I can’t help but trying to grab an audience’s attention right from the start.

There, are, of course, plenty of people in both the commercial and academic worlds who would have a lot of sympathy with the view that no business school can really teach entrepreneurship. After all, they say, many of the most high profile and successful of today’s entrepreneurs, such as Zuckerberg, Musk, Gates or Branson seem to have been far too busy building global businesses to bother with studying for an MBA. Entrepreneurship is something that is in your genes, they argue, like the ability to draw or dance, and if it’s not there already, then no amount of hours in a classroom is going to change things.

Interestingly, of course (and rather frustratingly for the cynics), most specialists in the field within business education would agree. No-one in my twenty years of dealing with business schools around the globe has ever actually said that it’s realistic to teach the spirit of entrepreneurship - or as Willem Burggraaf of the Nyenrode school neatly sums it up, “the character and guts to recognise an opportunity and seize it” – to someone who simply hasn’t got it. However, what they all do maintain – and very fervidly – is that if the spirit is there they can develop it. And perhaps one of the best definitions of why and how that should be done comes, at least in my view from Ben Spiegel of the University of Edinburgh Business School. “Entrepreneurs need more than skill and ambition,” he says, “they need a highly refined sense of taste to separate a good business idea from a hot buzz-word or to know a growing market from a shrinking one. And, like taste in fashion or art that cannot be taught, but it can be cultivated.”

From what I’ve seen over the past two decades this cultivation of skills in the classroom is certainly not all that business schools can offer. The increasingly ubiquitous incubator provides every type of practical help from office space to access to investors with clear and demonstrable results. The emlyon business school version in France, for example, now thrashes the national success rate for start-up companies of around 50% with a rate that is approaching 90%. And there is, of course, always the network. Or as an INSEAD alum once said to me when I asked why he had chosen that particular school, “The address book, pure and simple.”

However, the one thing that has struck me about the type of entrepreneurs that come out of leading business schools is just how interesting and downright likeable so many of them are. Which, in all seriousness is why I am so pleased to be judging this particular award in 2017 and why I am so looking forward to meeting all the finalists on 18th January. Best of luck to them all!

 Adrian Barrett is the Director of specialist PR firm, BlueSky PR, and has been working with both entrepreneurs and business schools around the world for over two decades.