How to talk to young people about entrepreneurship

September 02 2016

Our culture is obsessed with success — mostly because success, as portrayed in media, is sandwiched between wealth and fame. This idealist notion of success, especially in terms of entrepreneurship, has extreme consequences. Hearing stories about those select few who have made millions can alter young entrepreneurs’ expectations of themselves and their perspectives on the future.

I’ve been an entrepreneur for most of my life, and I’ve been teaching skills associated with entrepreneurship for over ten years. In working with clients and students of varying ages, I’ve learned:

Emphasize progress, not results
Entrepreneurship is a long road filled with pivots, failures, hiatus, flashes of brilliance and extreme exhaustion. When successful outcomes are the only stories highlighted, the heavy lifting journey loses value. It is imperative that students learn the importance of sticking things through, even when challenges become great. Success rarely happens overnight, and students need to understand hard work, patience and determination.

Build autonomy
Autonomy is belief in ability; when a student develops skills that contribute to her autonomy, she builds confidence and independence. Research has shown that autonomous students are more motivated, make better decisions, and are more responsible than their peers. Groups exercises, presentations and debates can push students to find answers and perform, even (and especially) when they are nervous.

Encourage questions
Asking questions is an essential step in finding new ways of doing things and improving outdated products. When students learn to think critically, there is no end to what they can do. Students who acquire critical thinking skills are able to analyze arguments, evaluate information and transfer ideas from one environment to another. And in today’s world, when industries borrow from others and businesses must quickly adapt to changing market needs, these skills are essential.

Teach communication skills
The ability to communicate is one of the most valuable business tools. If a student can structure an essay and clearly articulate key points, that student can learn to write a pitch, compose sales emails and rehearse cold calls. Being able to communicate (and listen!) builds confidence and empathy. Both are necessary for entrepreneurs.

Find local role models
No matter where they are in the world, students have heard of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Introduce your students to local entrepreneurs. Tell your class stories about people in their neighborhood, people who have built something, kept it going and continue to show up day in and day out. Even better: invite these businesswomen and men to your classroom and set up a mentoring program.

Reward mistakes
Students need to understand that few, very few people, get it right on the first try. Products can be taken off market and rebranded, launches can happen more than once, sometimes you have to go back to the drawing board and start all over again. Talk to your students about famous people who failed but kept going. Teach students to edit and find their own mistakes instead of giving them paper with red ink scrawled all over the page. Work with them to identify where mistakes occurred so they don’t happen again.

Our world needs young people who are confident, who aren’t afraid to question, and who get back up after failing. It’s our duty to show them how to do it.