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It takes a village to raise an entrepreneur

Mar 22 2017 05:02
Elli Yiannakaris*

A new approach to entrepreneurship training that focuses on the personal as much as the technical is key to overcoming the negative perceptions and economic realities which hinder the development of entrepreneurs, says entrepreneurial development expert Elli Yiannakaris.

THE recent launch of a new initiative by the Department of Higher Education and Training seeks to share best practice and establish a Community of Practice for entrepreneurship development at universities. It is a move that reflects a growing realisation of the role entrepreneurs can play in an economy – especially an ailing one like South Africa’s.

Entrepreneurship (and entrepreneurship education) has long been lauded as a solution to economic marginalisation – a way to get disenfranchised young people in particular into the economy. There are not enough jobs available, so it stands to reason that young people must make their own.

But the reality is that this is easier said than done, because teaching someone the techniques of running a business is not enough to create an entrepreneur - or a work-ready graduate, for that matter; you have to go further and this takes time and effort.

A recent report from the MasterCard Foundation on Economic Opportunities for Youth Strategies identified a lack of simple life skills as a key obstacle to young people today. The report highlights that marginalised young people have a poor combination of cognitive skills for analysing and using information, personal skills for developing personal agency and managing themselves, and interpersonal skills for communicating and interacting effectively with others.

The challenge therefore is to find a way to ‘teach’ entrepreneurship that also positively transforms the individuals involved. The Youth Economic Participation Initiative (YEPI) – an initiative of the Talloires Network (an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education) funded by the MasterCard Foundation – seeks to achieve exactly this, by finding and supporting initiatives around the world that are successfully walking this line.

YEPI has identified eight initiatives around the world – including the Raymond Ackerman Academy at the UCT Graduate School of Business – that are disrupting university pedagogies around youth entrepreneurship and showing positive outcomes in the process.

The evidence emerging from the YEPI network is showing some clear trends in what needs to change if training institutions want to genuinely empower more young people. And this kind of evidence will likely be of keen interest to the minister as he launches his new Community of Practice for entrepreneurship development in SA.

A key insight to emerge from YEPI is that alongside the development of business skills, there needs to be a much stronger emphasis on individual empowerment and soft skills. While higher education traditionally teaches the “technical”, transformational entrepreneurship education needs to emphasise the philosophical, the personal, and the possible.

Related to this is the importance of building an ecosystem around young entrepreneurs – comprising peers, funders, educators, mentors and local support organisations – that is able to provide a powerful source of support and connection. Ideally this should take account of local political and social conditions, and continue well beyond the completion of the official intervention.

In a country like South Africa, where Global Entrepreneurship Monitor research highlights that negative perceptions towards entrepreneurship as a career option are rife, with families and friends considering entrepreneurship to be low status or not socially acceptable, many aspiring entrepreneurs are encouraged to surround themselves with like-minded people.

Economic realities also mean that young entrepreneurs in low-income settings where daily deprivation is a constant challenge are highly likely to experience pressure to drop out in order to get a job and support their families. For this reason, access to other forms of personal support in the early stages of building a business is also critical, for example a daily lunch or small stipend. As anyone who has travelled the entrepreneurial path can attest, things can be tough in the early days and money is almost always scarce.

Thirdly, YEPI evidence indicates that the success of entrepreneurship training and employability preparation is also determined by the nature of the teams working on the design and delivery of such programmes. These teams need to embody the entrepreneurial mind-set themselves.

It takes passion, energy, compassion, commitment, risk taking, determination, flexibility and optimism to create and deliver programmes that foster those same characteristics in the aspiring participant entrepreneurs.

Ultimately, it is a skilful combination of all these approaches that will have the greatest chance of success. And, even though this is not popular in today’s fast-paced world, it is essential to recognise that time and patience are key. You can’t shift attitudes and beliefs and build the character and confidence required to underpin a successful entrepreneur overnight. In this instance, it really does take a village to raise an entrepreneur.

Equally important is the recognition that the work of transforming a young person is not a one-way street or a once-off intervention – it is a relationship, a journey.

The rewards for pursuing this kind of approach are significant, chiefly because it can help to give marginalised young people a crucial foothold in the economy by allowing them to gain economic independence that they can then leverage. It may take a while, but this is a sustainable route to building an economy from the ground up.

* Elli Yiannakaris is the Director of the Raymond Ackerman Academy of Entrepreneurial Development at the UCT Graduate School of Business and a speaker at the Department of Higher Education's recent inaugural Lekgotla on Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education. Opinions expressed are her own.

uct  |  entrepreneurs  |  opinion


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