Determining the What, Why, and How of Entrepreneurial Mindset

entrepreneurial mindset

The concept of the Entrepreneurial Mindset (EM) is gaining traction within higher education. There is a growing community focused on developing courses, trainings, workshops, degree programs, and minors that foster EM as well as research around the the best way to define, measure, and assess its impact. There’s a growing consensus that it is feasible and desirable to engage students in experiences that develop an entrepreneurial mindset, and that doing so will  better prepare them for success.

But ask a practitioner engaged in the field to define the concept and you’re likely to get varying answers. “It’s about creativity,” or, “Empathy is at the core of EM.” You’ll also often hear, “I know an entrepreneur when I see one.”

From our point of view, a working definition of EM is: a set of attitudes, skills and behaviors that help students to succeed academically, personally and professionally that include initiative and self-direction, empathy, risk-taking, flexibility and adaptability, creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving. Other definitions include the ability to see opportunities, marshal resources and create value.

If you’re looking for evidence on EM’s benefits, you’ll be hard pressed to find the research to back up people’s intuitive perceptions about the concept. The reason is there are few commonly accepted, reliable and valid instruments that are explicitly designed to assess entrepreneurial mindset and competencies. In fact, researchers and practitioners who attempt to assess qualities that make entrepreneurs successful struggle to:

  • reliably and validly assess individuals’ entrepreneurial characteristics and competencies;  
  • quantify the value-added of taught curriculum and research interventions; and
  • link assessed knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors to actual entrepreneurial outcomes, including success in developing and scaling innovations.

As members of this community, VentureWell recognizes the need for a common language and an organizing framework for EM. To that end, we’ve worked with a group of partners at Arizona State University (ASU), The Kern Family Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation to organize The Entrepreneurial Mindset Symposium: Toward Improved Understanding and Measurement. The program is designed to meet three objectives: 1) define the EM continuum, 2) situate efforts to define and measure EM, and 3) build a community of entrepreneurial mindset researchers and practitioners.

The symposium planning committee consists of VentureWell’s Phil Weilerstein and Thema Monroe-White, and Ann McKenna of Arizona State University. The first meeting was facilitated by Gary Lichtenstein, principal of Quality Evaluation Designs.

In preparing for the second convening, happening just prior to OPEN 2017 this March, Weilerstein and Monroe-White shared their perspectives on EM, the possible benefits it offers future entrepreneurs and the workforce as a whole, and the need for more research to measure the effectiveness of EM training and education. Below is an excerpt of their conversation.

What are your thoughts on the benefits to developing an entrepreneurial mindset?

Weilerstein: There are a number of realities facing 21st century workers and the educators preparing them for the workforce. Employees now have multiple roles. Problems are more complex and require sophisticated solutions. Successful entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs need a mix of skill sets–technical, psychological or emotional, and relational.

I would argue that higher ed offers little to prepare students for that evolving requirement, particularly in STEM. In the past, that was acceptable because the high value of technical skills was such that employers could invest in training to make people more effective and the compartmentalization of work did not put the demands on engineers and scientists to understand and respond to the broader context in which their technical work existed.

Higher ed needs to respond by developing the skills that future workers and entrepreneurs need. In order to do that, they need an objective basis for figuring out what they should be doing, how they should be training, and what they should be teaching. There are a lot of educators offering components and elements of EM, but to ensure they’re continuing to evolve with the demands of the marketplace, they will need to be able to measure that what they’re doing is working. Our intention is to enable the educational domain to effectively engage this challenge by bringing together people who have been studying the attributes that make up EM and develop, document and disseminate ways to demonstrate and guide, on an objective basis what educational practices work and justify their addition to an already crowded curriculum.

Monroe-White: When I think about the benefits of developing an entrepreneurial mindset, I think of it in terms of levels: the individual level, the organizational level and the social level.

At the individual level, EM has the potential to contribute to your own development in a way that makes you more productive as a worker, better able to manage ambiguity, and be in tune with various personality and psychological characteristics. At the organizational level, having someone on your team with those skills will make for a better, more productive, efficient and competitive organization. At the societal level, EM can help provide people with the capacity to address social problems. They’re compelled to bring value to society where there is a gap or need. In fact, EM resonates in the social entrepreneurship space. People driven to solve social issues are in it for the impact, though it is possible to do good while doing well.

Do you think EM can only be learned “on the job” or in experiential programs?

Weilerstein: Is EM nature or nurture? Can you be trained? If you can be trained, it’s important to make that an opportunity that can be replicated. Some institutions are putting a lot of resources into bringing EM into engineering programs. Being able to assess if people exposed to these new approaches are developing an entrepreneurial mindset has a great deal of value in both documenting what works and providing evidence that it is appropriate to include it in programs.

Monroe-White: That brings to mind two sets of students: the ones who are drawn to entrepreneurship and seek out programs around entrepreneurial mindset, and the students who have to complete a course requirement. The second group is exposed to the concept, but coming in they didn’t have a desire. What’s the value to them? I would argue that being exposed to these concepts makes individuals more effective employees in any organization. Whether or not you’re starting your own business or running a department, the skills are applicable in both scenarios.   

Weilerstein: Right. Our current focus isn’t on trying to address the individual with respect to the organization, but the individual with respect to their social environment, which includes their work environment. One of the things I’ve noticed among faculty teaching entrepreneurship is their penchant for fiery sermons about entrepreneurship. What they’re really preaching about is the entrepreneurial mindset. It’s about an attitude toward life. Be your own boss. What we’re interested in looking at is: whether or not you’re developing a product to create a business, there’s a way to look at your environment that allows you to create and solve problems and generate opportunities. That set of activities is the cornerstone for successful entrepreneurship. We’re trying to measure those cornerstone capabilities and understand what the skills and attributes are. And then use that data to get better at training.

This is the first installment in our blog series on conversations about entrepreneurial mindset. We’ll continue the conversation in future articles.