Teaching Entrepreneurship: An Interview with Heidi Neck

teaching entrepreneurship heidi neck

In January 2017, Professor Heidi Neck published Entrepreneurship: The Practice and Mindset, a new textbook about teaching entrepreneurship.

We sat down with Neck in her office at Babson College to discuss her motivation for writing the book, what it has to offer, and her views on teaching entrepreneurship.

What inspired you to write a textbook? What was your vision?

Entrepreneurship education is incredibly important, but current mainstream approaches are dated. Entrepreneurship is most often taught as a process (identifying an opportunity, understanding resource requirements, acquiring resources, etc.) which assumes known inputs and known outputs and a specific destination. A process is predictable. But, entrepreneurship is often not predictable. It is complex, chaotic, and lacking in any notion of linearity. And, so it requires creative and nimble thinking leading to a heightened level of experimentation where numerous iterations represent stages of learning rather than a series of starts and stops or even successes and failures. So, we need an approach to teaching entrepreneurship that is based on action and practice, that goes beyond understanding, knowing, and talking, and that requires using, applying, and acting. And, we needed a text book that embodies that approach and that enables faculty to adopt and practice it easily.

How would you describe the core principles of the book?

Entrepreneurship: The Practice and Mindset is a practice-based, realistic, and inclusive approach to entrepreneurship. It is a core textbook for college-level undergraduate and graduate students seeking methods for starting and running something new: a new business or initiative, profit or nonprofit, a large corporation, or a small business. This textbook approaches teaching entrepreneurship as a method—one that requires practice. It’s not about working toward a business plan. Rather, it’s about first cultivating the entrepreneurial mindset and changing how we think so that we are better able to act in a world that is increasingly uncertain. It’s about generating new ideas and testing these new ideas in the real world. Getting feedback from stakeholders in order to turn ideas into opportunities, experimenting with different business models, preparing for and even leveraging failure, and ultimately starting something new because it generates social or economic value in some way.

One issue that seems to get you riled up is the tendency in business schools for instructors to use terms such as leadership, management, and entrepreneurship almost interchangeably. What’s the issue?

Leadership is about influence. Management is about facilitation. Entrepreneurship is about creation. It is really important to be clear about this distinction because I see the role of an entrepreneur to be about creating the future. This text focuses on a method that enables entrepreneurs to do that—to gain practice through action in order to
create the future.

What do you say to those faculty who don’t like to use textbooks?

I understand why some faculty don’t like to use textbooks. I’m actually one of them! But, it is largely because I couldn’t find a text that had what I wanted. So, I wrote this book to fill that gap. To provide a text on teaching entrepreneurship that brings it all together in a relevant, fresh, and current way. Most importantly, the textbook requires students to take action so it’s not as static as other options.

What does this text offer faculty? Why will they chose to use it?

I believe there are three main points that will resonate with faculty.

First: Intro to entrepreneurship courses no longer attract the niche population of those who simply want to start a business. The students of today live in a constant state of startup. Creating their own job, starting a new project, managing multiple cool initiatives at one time, moving from job to job. The skills developed through the experience of the text will provide students with a way of thinking and acting that will prepare them to navigate an ever-changing world filled with uncertainty and opportunity.

Second: In order to learn entrepreneurship students must do entrepreneurship. The method of entrepreneurship presented in the book is based on practice and action. Students are asked to complete “mindshift” activities that require them to go beyond the classroom. What I love most is that faculty are given experiential learning exercises and simulations to replace the standard lecture or case study that will create an unprecedented amount of student engagement. The text enables instructors to create a very experiential course where students take action in order to learn entrepreneurship. Oh, and the experiential exercises are not in the book; rather, they are in a separate location accessible to faculty only after the text is adopted. So, the exercises look like they are yours and you look awesome!

Third: The topics covered represent the latest thinking in the actual practice of entrepreneurship. The text emphasizes developing an entrepreneurial mindset, generating ideas, experimenting, design thinking, business model canvas, customer development, crowdfunding, pitching, and it even devote an entire chapter to failure! Examples used throughout the book represent entrepreneurs of all kinds—from startup to corporate, local to global, and of different genders, race, and sexual orientation.

Does this book have relevance outside a business school course?

Absolutely. Colleges and universities today are trying to integrate entrepreneurship across campuses. Many entrepreneurship courses are being taught outside the business school—in the arts, science and engineering, medicine. This book was written to teach entrepreneurship as a life skill to diverse audiences, and I believe the emphasis on the mindset is attractive to nonbusiness students.

Is there still a tendency to mythologize entrepreneurship? And, why is that dangerous?

Myths of entrepreneurship do continue to carry significant weight. Those myths include the notion that entrepreneurship is about startups; that it can’t be taught; that entrepreneurs are extreme risk-takers who don’t collaborate; and that entrepreneurs devote large periods of time to planning. And, of course, there is still very much the cult of the hero entrepreneur. The media often exaggerate the meteoritic rise of so-called “overnight global sensations” such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Elon Musk (Tesla), and Travis Kalanick (Uber). While these stories are certainly inspirational, few people can personally identify them, and they do little to represent the reality of entrepreneurship. In fact, they can do more harm than good, discouraging some people from trying to be entrepreneurs because they think they lack the innate characteristics, or the resources. We believe strongly that
everyone has the ability to think and act entrepreneurially, to transform opportunity into reality, and create social and economic value.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I like to think of this book as an experience rather than a text. The mindset, method, and tools are the same ones I have used with my students over the years. The techniques have been tested, retested, and fine-tuned. I know that students will be thinking and acting more entrepreneurially after experiencing this book in a course.

An examination copy of the text can be accessed at Sage Publishing.

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