4 Strategies to Integrate Ethics into Entrepreneurship Education

Integrating Ethics Blog

The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity. That’s a motto of longtime Stanford University management science and engineering professor Tom Byers, faculty director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP). So in launching STVP’s latest initiative—promoting the teaching of values and ethics in entrepreneurship education—Byers sees a considerable opportunity, because, as he puts it, “I don’t recall a bigger problem than this.” 

One need only scan the recent headlines to understand his concern. Theranos, Uber, Facebook, Google—the list of tech companies that have been mired in ethical transgressions continues to grow, a trend made more worrisome by the industry’s increasing level of social influence. Indeed, for Byers, the tech industry today stands at a reputational crossroads. “This is dangerously starting to feel like the pharmaceutical industry, or worse, the tobacco industry,” he says. “As teachers of entrepreneurship and innovation, we have to take a hard look at what we are teaching, and what we are stressing to our students.”

And that’s precisely what Byers has set out to do, partnering with fellow educators such as VentureWell Faculty Grant recipient, Jon Fjeld, director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke University, and Laura Dunham, associate dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota. Teaching professional ethics is hardly a new idea—it’s a standard part of the curriculum in schools of medicine, law, engineering, and even business. But with just a few exceptions, says Byers, teaching values and ethics to entrepreneurs “just hasn’t been done.” 

And doing it successfully, so it engages the kinds of students who are drawn to entrepreneurship, may require professors to innovate themselves.

Emphasize the upside of ethics  

Byers acknowledges that part of the reason ventures struggle with ethical issues has to do with the nature of startups, and the survival-based priorities that often result. “The number one priority is, Can we make this thing, get it working, and ship it? Number two, Can we find a business model, so we don’t have to live on investment the rest of our lives? And, number 3, oh, yeah, values,” he says. For ventures that do gain traction, he says, the resulting corporate cultures are too often based on “go big or go home, move fast, and break things—all those phrases that are coming back to haunt people. Somehow the messages become all about scaling, forgetting to think of the consequences of the technology and the consequences to the organization.” 

To offer students a counter-narrative, Byers has been experimenting with various approaches: working ethical discussions into courses more consistently, bringing in speakers on the topic, and developing new curriculum. He’s presented case studies of businesses that have used ethics to gain a competitive advantage—say, as a way to attract top talent. He’s prompted spirited class discussions with polls asking provocative ethical questions such as, Was it a mistake to fire former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick? (About a quarter of the class said it was.) 

One insight he’s gained is that students drawn to innovation and entrepreneurship need to see the benefits of ethical thinking. “If presented as a set of constraints, it has less chance of influencing behaviors,” he says. “They are interested in this topic because it’s fun and exciting: it’s building something to change the world. We will have more impact as educators if we can present ethics as an enabler of value creation.”   

Have students answer real-world questions

Fjeld, who began his academic career teaching philosophy, agrees that ethical education shouldn’t just be about emphasizing what not to do, but rather about how to pursue worthwhile goals in the right way. “If we think about ethics as a mechanism for putting on the brakes just before you drive off the cliff, we are doomed,” he says. “To prevent bad action, we need to say, Okay, let’s start down the right path from the beginning.”

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During our OPEN 2019 Mission 2025 visioning session, our faculty community identified ethics as a topic that would be critical in moving the entrepreneurship education field forward.

To bring that process to life for students, Fjeld emphasizes ethics in his experiential courses, those with hands-on entrepreneurship assignments that replicate the work of the real world. “That’s a great context to bring ethics into the classroom,” he explains, “because by definition the students are the decision makers in a process, and so you can try to help them think about all the issues associated with the decisions they are making.”

Since experiential courses are often structured around questions—Who is your target customer? What is your business model?—they easily allow introducing new questions that open up ethical discussions. “For example, I have opened with the question, Who is your target customer? Who could be affected by the business idea you have in mind?” he says. “What are the consequences for what sets of constituencies? Are the consequences good or bad? Are you happy with them?” 

Even questions of environmental responsibility and financial risk can be raised through this framework, as part of the discussion of a student’s business model. “Normally in entrepreneurship we leap immediately to, Is it financially viable? But you can just take half a step back and say, What are the resources necessary, including money? How are we using them? And are we using them responsibly?”

Present entrepreneurship as a path to values 

At the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic institution with the motto All for the Common Good, the school’s mission-driven focus makes it a natural environment to discuss values and ethics, says Dunham. “Students are always reflecting on questions such as, What is my impact on the world? Am I making the world a better place? How do my choices impact all the stakeholders involved?” And yet the high-stakes nature of entrepreneurship, she notes, can sometimes make it difficult to do the right thing. When people are suddenly starting to put a lot of money in your venture, capital that is very focused on financial return, that can put pressure on individuals to try and meet those goals by all means necessary.”

In response, the school has recently redesigned its business curriculum and introduced a first-year course called Business for the Common Good. Students learn about business functions but also—through case studies and guest speakers—discover how business can be a platform for creating good or, conversely, a source of problems. “It’s all within the context of, How do we create organizations that bring real good with them, that perform well strategically in the market but are also providing those other sources of value?”

Underlying those business questions are deeper personal ones for students: Who are you, and what do you believe? “Entrepreneurship should be a journey of self-discovery,” Dunham explains. “We tell our students that entrepreneurship is about solving problems that matter to you, and creating value for others. We look at it through a lens that sees it as a human enterprise, and if you are going to engage in this enterprise, be clear about who you are and what you want to impact, and what your impact could be on the world.” 

One of St. Thomas’s most popular classes for entrepreneurship students helps them explore those questions. Christian Faith and Entrepreneurship, taught in conjunction with the department of Catholic Studies, involves readings (from papal encyclicals to the work of author David Brooks), discussions of case studies of startups, and “thinking deeply about your career as a calling, and getting clear about what your values are,” says Dunham. For a final assignment, students write a personal mission statement modeled after the “This I Believe” essays popularized by National Public Radio, and share their work with the class at the semester’s end. “Students come out of it saying, ‘That was one of the best classes I’ve ever had. Nobody gives me time and space to really ponder these big questions about what it means to be a good human being, about what it means to be a person who lives according to a moral set of values,’” says Dunham. “They are like, ‘I’m thinking about my life differently.’” 

Know that students will be interested

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Students participate in a design thinking session at Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas. Photo credit: Mike Ekern, University of St. Thomas.

Having seen this, Dunham believes that students are hungry for discussions of ethics and values, particularly when presented as a tool for finding meaning and creating good in the world. At Duke, too, Fjeld says that students are very receptive to the material. At Stanford, student support has a caveat, says Byers. “They don’t want us to be like parents, or long-winded,” he notes. “But they are eager to learn this if we empower them and make this relevant to their professional lives.”

As for engaging his colleagues in academia, Byers says his group’s surveys suggest professors are receptive to the idea of teaching ethics but are concerned about adding more material to their already jam-packed syllabuses. “So we are going to have to come up with some approaches to overcome that,” he notes. Still, the potential to bring new thinking to an issue with such a pronounced impact on society has him enthusiastic about the possibilities for change. “If we can get half of the thousands of teachers teaching innovation and entrepreneurship talking about this stuff,” he says, “I think we could move the needle.”

Takeaways for educators

Byers, Fjeld, and Dunham agree that work in this area is still in its early stages. But, taken together, a sampling of their strategies so far offers guidance for other educators:  

  • Engage students with examples that show the competitive advantages of ethical practices
  • Frame the discussion as being not about constraints but opportunities
  • Let experiential assignments raise actual ethical questions
  • Introduce discussions of social consequences in business plans
  • Present entrepreneurship as a personal journey that allows students to discover their values
  • Explore how business can be a vehicle for social good. 

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Photo credit for featured image: Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke University

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