How to Teach Entrepreneurship

In this excerpt from his autobiography, Jump! How I Rose from Poverty and Anti-Semitism to Become a Tech Sector Pioneer and a Mensch (Amazon), Jack Roseman describes his unique approach to teaching entrepreneurship, which he did for more than a decade at Carnegie Mellon University. 

One of the keystones of my course was a business plan. I required all my undergraduate and graduate students to develop business plans, by themselves or in collaboration with one or two colleagues. This forced them to focus on all the elements that a successful startup requires. I would re-enforce the message by stimulating them in class with questions designed to help them determine if they really were entrepreneurial timber. Do you have a unique idea? Do you have the passion to work that idea round the clock? Can you innovate? Can you manage a complex organization? How would you handle bankruptcy — would it kill you? I wanted students to turn the microscope inward and see what they were made of. To spark a spirit of entrepreneurship, I often posed a hypothetical situation to them:

“Let’s assume you work for a multinational company, GE, say, for 10 years, and let’s assume your average annual salary for that decade is $100,000. So you make $1 million. After 10 years, you decide you’re not happy with the tradeoff. You say to GE, here’s your $1 million back. Can you please return my 10 years? Can’t get them back, can you? Why is that equation fair?”

I was trying to get them to think about their goals. Do you want to grind it out in the corporate world, polluted by politics as it is, or would you prefer all the risks, challenges and potential poverty of entrepreneurship? What will you do with your life — that’s the thing that counts.

I posed other questions to students to force them to think about their most important goals. I would start with a simple one from the textbook: Over the next three to five years, what do you hope to accomplish? Next, I would spin out another hypothetical situation: You’re my age. You’re on your deathbed. As you look back at your life, what is the one thing you did that you really feel good about? Then I would present a more complicated situation: You go for a physical. The doctor says, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is, exactly one year from today, you’ll die. The good news is, for that one year, you’ll feel no pain. Now, tell me how you’ll spend that year.

                   Jack Roseman

Write these answers down for yourself, I would tell them, side by side on a single sheet of paper. When you read them, you’ll get a strong sense of who you really are and what you really want to do. I invited students to share their answers if they wanted to; a surprising number did share them, and a couple of the responses were doozies. A Pakistani student said he would spend his last year trying to “convert the pope to Islam.”

I looked for some indication in his face that he was joking, but he was dead serious.

“You’ll see him married first,” I said.

Another student, a young girl from China, also was kind enough to share how she would spend her final year.

“I would take every drug under the sun,” she wrote, “and I would go to bed with every white man I could find.”

Brother. If you’re the supposedly wise old professor, how do you respond to that? I thanked her for her honesty and left it at that.

My sense of teaching is that students learn best what they learn themselves. You can dispense advice from On High, and students may or may not relate to it. A better approach to giving advice: ask probing questions. When students ask you questions, turn them around so they’re forced to look inward, to their own experiences, for the answers. 

If students came to me for advice on development or implementation of their business plans, here’s how the conversation typically would go.

“I can’t find any investors for my business.”

“Does the market need the product?”

“My research tells me it does.”

“If that’s true, why wouldn’t an investor climb aboard?”

“Maybe it’s because I don’t have a track record.”

“What can you do about that?”

“Maybe I can find a partner with experience and a solid reputation.”

When a local magazine published a profile of me recently, it called me the “Tech Whisperer,” citing this technique of turning around questions so that students and young entrepreneurs are providing their own answers. I must admit: I like the nickname.