Gaining Pre-Entrepreneurial Experience

Germany needs more entrepreneurs. While recent surveys agree that 25% to 30% of young scientists have good chances for creating a start-up, only 5% currently dare to take this step. In our ongoing series, Next Wave Germany and the Berlin Institute of Entrepreneurship have invited leading experts to discuss ways in which the culture of entrepreneurship can be fostered at German universities. This week, Hans-Jürgen Weißbach , professor at the University of Applied Sciences Frankfurt am Main and project manager of the Frankfurt Model "Entrepreneurship for Students and Graduates," tells us what universities can do to support young scientists' demand for autonomy as one of the strongest incentives to become an entrepreneur.

Study materials and teaching should focus on action-oriented learning. Independent thinking and acting is most efficiently developed by independent thinking and acting. It is the duty of academic teachers to create and refine methods to train independent thinkers and actors. Entrepreneurship education should also help students develop an entrepreneurial personality and acquire the management know-how that is needed at the different stages of the entrepreneurial process from idea creation via start-up to growth.

A Training Program Already in Place

In 1998, the University of Applied Sciences Frankfurt introduced four modules of an Entrepreneurship-Training program for students of all faculties, called the Frankfurt Model for Entrepreneurship. The objective of the Frankfurt Model is to teach students and college graduates how to set up their own business and to provide extensive support during the start-up process. The program comprises the following components: seminars on new business creation, individual coaching services, training in social competence, a telephone hotline for new start-ups and recently founded enterprises, and founder's days (Workshops on Entrepreneurship). Several start-up projects have been successfully supported; more promising projects are expected to follow. The Frankfurt Model is jointly implemented by the cooperating partners: Fachhochschule Frankfurt am Main - University of Applied Sciences, Frankfurter Sparkasse (Savings Bank), and Institut für Berufliche Bildung, Arbeitsmarkt und Sozialpolitik (INBAS) GmbH (Institute for Vocational Education and Training, Labour Market and Social Policies), Frankfurt/Main. The project is financially supported by the European Commission in connection with its UNIUN pilot project. Within the scope of the UNIUN pilot project, the Frankfurt Model for Entrepreneurship closely co-operates with comparable initiatives of the universities of Vienna and Berlin.

That is the general postulation, but how can this goal be achieved? Universities have not always been famous for their reputation as the most efficient incubators of entrepreneurial thinking. To the contrary, they often are still rather bureaucratic institutions, and academic teachers tend to avoid risks anxiously, or support new ideas euphorically and without criticism. And science in particular depends on methods of learning that are not of the sort of methods on which entrepreneurs should rely. Science is based on authorities, fixed rules, and theory, not on sudden opportunities, strategic chances, and a pragmatic view of the customer and the market.

Students usually don't expect to get much help from the university if they want to start up a business. There is one principal reason for which we hold universities to be the most important incubators of entrepreneurship for young qualified people: They are closer to the students than chambers of commerce, employers' associations, etc. We have to study the students' milieu (which is not always the same as the academic milieu) and to reinforce their demand for freedom and independence if we want them to open their minds to the idea of entrepreneurship. We should not meet the demands of those who ask us for a license for entrepreneurship (this really happened to me one day!) or a "Master of Entrepreneurship," and not primarily of those who are theoretically interested in how to build up an e-business. Instead we should look for those who have difficulties with the traditional style of the institution because they don't get enough space for action.

Successful entrepreneurs are seldom geniuses and seldom stupid; most of them are "in between," maybe with a medium intelligence quotient and a certain feeling that they don't want to copy the career of their professors, but with a very strong demand for autonomy. According to our observations, the demand for autonomy and not the existence of particular cognitive skills is the strongest incentive to become an entrepreneur.

For those who show strong symptoms of autonomy, we can offer a broad range of training based on practical experience. This experience may include an assessment party to which the founders invite their friends, asking them to give them an anonymous feedback on a questionnaire whether they will fulfil the personal requirements of an entrepreneur or not. We may encourage them to search discussions with some bankers to let them check their business plans and to report afterwards in the seminary what they have learned from the discussions. We also can arrange for students to meet their future customers in the seminary to whom they have to present their products, or a venture capital fund manager with whom they have to negotiate in front of the audience. They can try to find out what their competitors are doing in practical research (on the Internet or in a pub, interviewing their staff) and they could design and build small prototypes and test them with virtual customers. They can join to create a consultancy cooperative or even operate the cafeteria while learning book-keeping.

The university offers a lot of chances and niches for this practical pre-entrepreneurial experience. They should be taken.

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