Whether it’s the Memon community in southern Pakistan or Chinioti entrepreneurs in the north, an unparalleled and uncanny instinct for creating value and generating profit seems to be part of their DNA. Even the approach of young business students from such families (when taking part in class discussions or working on assignments) differs starkly from students belonging to other communities. This observation leads to an intriguing question: “Can entrepreneurship be taught, or is it something that is innate?”
Research seems to be divided on this issue. The debate of ‘nature versus nurture’ and ‘are entrepreneurs born or made?’ has resulted in some interesting arguments and findings, with some critics going as far as terming the notion of ‘teaching entrepreneurship’ an oxymoron. Further fuelling this line of thought is a fact that many (if not most) US-based technology entrepreneurs are college dropouts (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg to name a few). However, contradicting this notion is a 2016 study of American and German business students conducted by New York University, which suggests that the educational setting does have an impact on the innovative thinking and entrepreneurial intention of students. This finding, on one hand endorses the opinions of the advocates of teaching entrepreneurship and on the other, highlights the importance of research that is aimed at identifying the best practices in establishing a pedagogical framework to teach entrepreneurship.
Regardless of the strength of the arguments on both sides, an undeniable fact is that successful entrepreneurs have been observed to possess specific characteristics and traits. Some may be part of their personality (family background and associated upbringing) and others could be the result of the training they undergo at their educational institutions or during practical experience. Our experience at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) suggests that in order to develop these characteristics, entrepreneurship education should have three main components: conceptual, managerial and motivational.
The motivational part is aimed at instilling a ‘can do’ attitude among students in order to prepare them to persevere in the face of difficulties and failure. Stories about self-made people are a good tool to achieve this objective. Success stories coming out of the IBA have proven time and again that it is this third facet of entrepreneurship education that is most fundamental and provides the impetus to the first two.
The conceptual part mainly deals with developing an understanding of universally-recognised terminologies used in entrepreneurship; hence, a student must be able to decipher the meaning of ‘pivoting the venture because the current value proposition is not good enough’. The managerial part trains student in situational decision-making. Case studies of successful entrepreneurs, highlighting difficult circumstances and the decisions taken are very effective for this purpose. The motivational part is aimed at instilling a ‘can do’ attitude among students in order to prepare them to persevere in the face of difficulties and failure. Stories about self-made people are a good tool to achieve this objective. Success stories coming out of the IBA have proven time and again that it is this third facet of entrepreneurship education that is most fundamental and provides the impetus to the first two. As the saying goes: “One has to plunge into the water to learn to swim” and this third component creates the much needed impetus for students to plunge into the waters of the practical business world and learn the true meaning of the concepts and managerial situations they studied. Students must be taught to be action-oriented and quick to implement solutions to a compelling problem and with whatever resources they possess at that point in time. This goes against the ‘Silicon Valley’ entrepreneurship methodology, which focuses too much on fundraising and convincing venture capitalists to invest in an idea. IBA’s success stories provide enough evidence to prove that this action-oriented approach of self-sufficiency is more effective in Pakistan compared to the Silicon Valley method.
One such success story is that of Fawad Mohiuddin (an IBA graduate) who opted for incubation at the Aman Centre for Entrepreneurial Development at the IBA. He had tried his luck in different areas but failed to capitalise on seemingly good opportunities. Then, in 2016, he came across photographs of a hi-tech point of sales (POS) system sold by a Korean company and decided to introduce this technology in Pakistan. The ambition of a novice entrepreneur to become a distributor of an established foreign tech giant seemed extremely unrealistic, yet, Mohiuddin’s action-oriented nature pushed him to contact the company by telephone. The company decided to test the ambition of this young, exuberant entrepreneur and fixed a meeting with him at the GITEX technology exhibition in Dubai. Mohiuddin borrowed money from his father and flew to Dubai and ended up buying a set of the POS system as a demo unit. After coming back to Pakistan, he went on a meeting spree with potential buyers and eventually joined hands with one of Gul Ahmed’s Ideas stores in Karachi and thus his company Technosync came into being. In the next couple of years, Technosync grew their client base and the range of their technology products. Today, the company is assisting the IBL group to import and install vending machines throughout Pakistan. Technosync employ more than 10 people and are continuously introducing new automation solutions to businesses in Pakistan.
Instead of investing time and effort building detailed plans and complicated feasibility studies in order to acquire funding from venture capitalists, they are pushed to experiment with ideas using whatever resources they have at their disposal. They learn (sooner rather than later) that failure is the best teacher and that it is cheaper to fail early and fast
Another inspirational story is that of Muhammad Hassan Khan. Along with one of his friends and term project group members, Khan started providing food and stationery items to IBA’s faculty and students and charged a nominal amount for his delivery services. This was in 2014 when e-commerce in Pakistan was gaining pace. One of the e-commerce-related problems that Khan identified was the long delay in COD payments by the courier companies to e-commerce merchants. He decided to start a courier company called Stallion Deliveries and promised his clients a 24-hour COD payback. In the next year, the company grew so fast that established companies started to feel threatened by Stallion Deliveries and had to improve their services to maintain their client base. Stallion Deliveries was acquired by the ARY Group in February 2015 for a hefty sum while Hassan retained the position of CEO.
Such success stories endorse the entrepreneurship philosophy of IBA, which hinges on the principles of action and self-sufficiency. Students are encouraged to find out who they are and what they know. They are trained to experiment with different ideas while staying within the limits of their affordable loss. Most importantly, they are advised to be action-oriented.
Instead of investing time and effort building detailed plans and complicated feasibility studies in order to acquire funding from venture capitalists, they are pushed to experiment with ideas using whatever resources they have at their disposal. They learn (sooner rather than later) that failure is the best teacher and that it is cheaper to fail early and fast – the principle of Intelligent Fast Failures (IFF). This proves that entrepreneurship, like swimming, can be taught – by plunging into shallow waters to learn a few useful lessons without drowning.
Dr Najam A. Anjum is the Program Lead ‘Entrepreneurship for Engineers’ at the IBA-Karachi.