The entrepreneurial mindset in higher education – what is it?

Maybe it’s a utopia? Some distant goal for an eager lifelong learner? And by the way, why should I care, unless I have a secret dream of becoming an entrepreneur myself?

It may be difficult to convince the skeptic to pay close attention when we start talking about entrepreneurship and building an entrepreneurial mindset among higher education students. However, it would be a good idea to lend an ear. In many ways, students depend on their teachers (aka the strange creatures awarding study points), and who have the power and responsibility to design (a large part of) the students’ learning experiences. The role of the teacher in supporting students’ development of skills and competencies is therefore non-negotiable.

If you wonder what the concept in the title, the entrepreneurial mindset, indicates, a simple Google search provides quite a prompt reply to the question: The “[e]ntrepreneurial mindset refers to a specific state of mind which orientates human conduct towards entrepreneurial activities and outcomes. Individuals with entrepreneurial mindsets are often drawn to opportunities, innovation and new value creation”. A state of mind. Opportunities. Innovation. New value creation. Entrepreneurship is not only for startups, it’s a process that helps anyone identify relevant questions, problems, and answers. In addition to the act of identifying, the entrepreneurial process also entails acting upon opportunities in various contexts (such as an organization or a specific business setting). The entrepreneurial mindset is, in other words, an attitude, and refers to more than merely studying entrepreneurship or innovation management. It also entails being able to do things, to act, based on the identified opportunities. But are all students supposed to reach such a state of mind, and how should we as university teachers go about it?

I take it for granted that all faculty at higher education institutions aim at preparing students for the next chapters of their lives and in becoming successful, however, allowing freedom for the students to define what being successful means to them. This requires some skills that are trained throughout the years spent studying; skills which are vital for these individuals when they exit the safe haven we call university, in which the real world may sometimes be illustrated as quite static and bound by theoretical rules. This may cause some cognitive dissonance among graduates when they enter the workforce; the reality does not meet their expectations, they may feel inexperienced, overwhelmed by the requirements, and unable to learn new things. Entrepreneurial skills do not develop unless you are exposed to situations, where decisions need to be taken based on incomplete information, in teams that may or may not be efficient, and with uncertain or risky outcomes. The university is the perfect setting to practice these skills.

Entrepreneurial skills are not restricted to those studying entrepreneurship or involved in startups in their spare time, but rather something that should be integrated into all curricula, enabling graduates to develop their entrepreneurial mindset. The skills and competences involve ideation and opportunity identification, mobilizing resources and putting ideas into action (have a look at EntreComp’s The Entrepreneurship Competence Framework, 2016). These skills are relevant to everyone. In addition, it should be remembered that when we teach entrepreneurship, developing skills are in focus rather than starting businesses. If a potential business is involved, then as teachers we should be more than willing to support and enable that endeavor, fostering the passion and directing towards finding the right resources. My point being that entrepreneurship and fostering the entrepreneurial mindset are something that should be integrated into teaching, regardless of the subject we teach. When designing courses, one important aspect is considering what kind of skills the students may develop during the course, and by which pedagogical methods or tools.

In this blog, which presents entrepreneurship at the Åbo Akademi University from various points of view, we will explore the methods and thoughts of fostering the entrepreneurial mindset further. It’s about students’ learning to some degree, but let’s not forget the academic influencers: we should all be entrepreneurs. Teachers too. Do something you haven’t done before. I dare you.

Anna-Greta Nyström is Senior lecturer in international marketing at the School of Business & Economics at Åbo Akademi University. Anna-Greta is actively involved in the Startup course run by four higher education institutions in Turku (part of the Junior Achievement programme) and acts as pedagogical wizard in the YTYÄ project, aiming at fostering entrepreneurship efforts within ÅAU.