Some ten years ago, I wondered why so few students from the design department at our University of Applied Sciences didn’t do more with their final year innovative prototypes and why most of them looked for employee jobs in the design sector rather than considered entrepreneurship as a career option. The reason was simple, they didn’t see starting a design business as an option because almost nobody showed them that an entrepreneurial life could be for them. So, I made it my mission to change this and set out on a self-directed learning journey searching for the right approaches, models, tools, training materials, competences, and skills on entrepreneurship education.
For a few years, I tested and experimented with tools, exercises and assignments that I had developed myself to unlock the entrepreneurial skills and attitudes of my students. I would say that I was moderately successful and my students seemed to like this approach. Some even did become entrepreneurs!
"The entrepreneurship trajectory taught me that the world needs creative people willing to take risks. No guts no glory.” (Student in Logistics management)
After this initial period of trial and error, I felt I needed to collate this piloting work in a concrete toolbox; a guidebook to help me design learning materials in a more structured way. Incidentally, at the same time, I learned about the EntreComp framework and saw that it matched my needs instantly. So since this academic year, I use EntreComp in the entrepreneurship education tracks in interior and design, business and management, information management, logistics management, and multimedia design.
I'm convinced entrepreneurial competence building only happens when learners do tasks that require these competences. This training needs to take place long-term and the experiences need to be tangible and concrete, not theoretical and distant. It is fitting that the first three levels of the EntreComp proficiency scale (foundation, intermediate, advanced) perfectly match with the duration of a typical bachelor degree: first, second and third year. So EntreComp offers this great opportunity to be used long-term. I also found that it fosters students’ understanding that being entrepreneurial is a powerful life skill:
"This track taught me to be more self-reliant. It fosters skills to tackle daily life problems and challenges… it empowers my resilience.” (Student in Logistics management)
Now how do I foster entrepreneurial skills in class? At Thomas More, a typical entrepreneurship track runs for 12 weeks in which I work with the students two hours per week. Depending on the phase, our students work individually or in teams on an innovation project during those 12 weeks. Their assignment is to proof that they are capable of spotting an opportunity or address a need of somebody or something; that they are capable of generating multiple ideas and solutions regarding this opportunity; that they are capable of adding value for somebody with that solution; and they are capable of communicating their solution to the world.
Together, we first discover and discuss the possible outcomes when someone or a group of people undertakes entrepreneurial action. This can lead to the creation of new business (entrepreneurship), the creation of added value within organisations or businesses (intrapreneurship) or the creation of added value in a non-profit context (social entrepreneurship).
Students need to know the landscape in which entrepreneurial behavior can flourish, to tackle their prejudices on entrepreneurship, of which the most persistent one is that entrepreneurship is only about starting a business. A great exercise for this is to engage with them asking “Who’s your entrepreneurial hero?” In this exercise, students have to make a portrait of someone who inspires them, or to whom they look up. In a mindmap, they visualise their hero and describe ‘typical’ entrepreneurial attitudes that their hero possesses. It is a tangible way to let students think about skills such as being innovative, persistence, creativity, spotting opportunities etc. Often, heroes are the usual suspects such as famous tech entrepreneurs and ex-soccer players, but sometimes they are also amazing next door neighbours who run local community initiatives, brothers who made u-turns in their careers to realise long cherished dreams, and friends who took the decision to take their life in their own hands.
When the actual innovation trajectory starts, students follow a roadmap which is quite parallel to the thematic thread of the Entre Comp framework. One by one, each competence from the three competence clusters is explored via successive assignments that start with opportunity discovery and end with an overall reflection on the innovation trajectory.
Students are free to choose their project as long as it connects to the curriculum of their course. For example, students in logistics management are free to choose a case or challenge in the broad field of mobility, transportation, logistics etc. I observed the most entrepreneurial and innovative engagement when students relate their innovation challenge to their own worlds. For example, a student searched for solutions to combine different public transport subscriptions(train, bus, tram) in one, because he got annoyed to use three different subscriptions as a public transport user.
Next, we learn to use different ideation techniques and tools to explore a myriad of ideas. In this phase, I organise a speed-dating session with the whole class, so that students can pitch their ideas to each other and enrich their thinking and spark further research. They understand that this is as valuable in mobilising resources when being entrepreneurial as finding money. By maintaining a roadmap, we experience all touchpoints of an entrepreneurial innovation journey.
"The entrepreneurship trajectory offered me insights in how one can turn daily problems into advantages. The roadmap was an eye-opener that taught me that things don’t get solved on their own. I’m surprised how much skills one needs to ‘invent’ something for someone.” (Student in Information management)
The innovation trajectory ends with the presentation of a one-minute promotional video of their innovation. It corresponds with the competence to communicate clearly and with enthusiasm about what they have worked on.
Project by a first-year informatics student who conceptualised Wifi free zones in public spaces as a statement for more authentic human interaction:
The ‘official’ end for the students of their entrepreneurship trajectory is the deposit of an Entrepreneurial Portfolio, where all the assignments, exercises, mind maps, notes, and visuals are compiled. The last page of the portfolio contains perhaps the most impactful learning experience of the track, which is a personal reflection and lessons learned on the trajectory sparked by the question: “Do you feel that you have unlocked entrepreneurial competences?”
Filip Burgelman is a lecturer at Thomas More University of Applied Sciences in Belgium. He leads the entrepreneurship trajectory for undergraduates.