Why Business Schools Are Still Missing The Mark On Entrepreneurship

Steve Blank teaches entrepreneurship at Berkeley, Stanford, NYU, and Columbia

Steve Blank teaches entrepreneurship at Berkeley, Stanford, NYU, and Columbia

Steve Blank has a big idea. In fact, he’s had quite a few. Enough of them that Silicon Valley, arguably the most big-idea-saturated place in the world (nearly everyone – from baristas to venture capitalists has one) tends to listen when he speaks.

For one, the serial-entrepreneur-turned-author-turned-teacher masterminded the customer development methodology for startups. The method demands that founders get outside the classroom to test their ideas in the real world, with real people. His pupil and protégé Eric Ries literally wrote the book on 21st-century entrepreneurship, The Lean Startup, which treats founding a company as a quasi-scientific process that demands constant testing and refining. Together, they created a new vocabulary that you’ll hear floating around the artisan coffee shops in San Francisco’s tech-populated SoMa neighborhood. Buzzwords like “pivot” and “minimum viable product” wove their way into the Bay Area’s lexicon years ago – but only recently have B-schools begun to adopt them too. 

When Poets&Quants last spoke to Blank, he had a beef with business schools. They were getting entrepreneurship all wrong. B-schools were applying 100-year-old corporate management principles to an entirely new beast. These outmoded ways of thinking simply couldn’t survive the rapid-fire conditions of the Internet, globalization, and increasingly savvy consumers, Blank contended. Plus, students simply weren’t getting hands-on experience.

However, Blank says that’s changing. B-schools are catching on. Some, like Harvard Business School, require all of their first-year students to take a course on entrepreneurship and to start their own micro-businesses. Others, like Stanford, Berkeley, Haas, and Columbia, offer incubator space so students can get their ideas off the ground. In fact, Blank teaches at Berkeley and Columbia’s business schools and the engineering schools at Stanford and New York University.

But like a game of whack-a-mole, B-schools have once again overlooked a budding area of innovation, according to Blank. This is where his latest big idea comes in: B-schools need to lead corporate innovation. Corporate behemoths are desperate to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. B-schools are perfectly positioned to break ground in the area by providing key research and minting MBAs primed to lead crotchety old companies out of the innovation Stone Age. But few academic institutions are capitalizing on their thought-leader status to lead the charge with new courses and revised curricula. As a result, students, corporations, and B-schools themselves are falling behind, Blank says. 

In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants, Blanks explains why business schools have missed the mark yet again and what students can do about it. He reveals the red flags you should watch out for in your B-school consideration set and the three classes every MBA should take.

Last time we spoke, you felt many business schools were getting entrepreneurship wrong. Is that changing?

The change has been pretty rapid, and I’m surprised. Four to five years ago when I started thinking about the lean startup stuff, a capstone class in business schools for entrepreneurship education was on how to write a business plan, and I have to tell you, the change has been breathtaking. That’s no longer considered a capstone. In fact, if your school is doing that, then the students are smarter than the administration: Many of them know that no business plan survives the first contact with customers, so why are you asking them to create one?

There’s now a model of the lean startup that’s been adopted by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health as well as Berkeley and Stanford. It’s called the Lean LaunchPad, which teaches students how to build a lean startup experimentally. The adoption has probably been the fastest of any class ever, and I’m kind of proud of it.

Where do you predict the future of entrepreneurship education is headed? Are business schools prepared for it?

Here’s a big idea that everybody’s been missing because it just happened. It’s the fact that large companies are now turning to startup companies and startup ideas. Really, the whole lean startup thing is being adopted by large corporations, and no business school has figured that out yet. Corporate entrepreneurship and innovation will be the next big thing for the next 10 years, and the business school that sets up a program for that will be printing money from executive education and graduating a cadre of MBAs who will be snapped up by large companies that are desperate to reintroduce innovation inside their corporations.

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