The Education for a Successful Entrepreneur

I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can make the best use of my time, given my circumstances and where I am in life, and one of the most important things that I’ve had to think about is the division of time between school and entrepreneurship. Given that I’m passionate about entrepreneurship and deeply involved on campus, it would make sense for me to be spending much of my free time working on projects, generating ideas, and practicing entrepreneurship. After all, school is a wonderful time to work on a startup, because you don’t need to be making a salary, you have so many talented and ambitious peers, and in the worst case of your startup failing, you can always fall back to your schoolwork.

But this semester, I’ve made a deliberate effort to cut down on my projects and entrepreneurial activities in order to focus on schoolwork. I’ve thought a lot and there are many reasons why I’ve made this decision to focus more on schoolwork, and one of those reasons is that I believe entrepreneurship is nothing more than a means to an end, and not an end in itself, as many think.

What is entrepreneurship? I love the practice of starting off these definitional discussions with a Wikipedia quote.

Entrepreneurship is the act of being an entrepreneur, which can be defined as
“one who undertakes innovations, finance and business acumen in an effort to
transform innovations into economic goods”.

Although not everyone may agree with this precise definition, at least it serves to lend some concreteness to this notion of entrepreneurship that we are discussing. But anyway, a precise definition is not necessary for what I want to explore here.

So, given this definition, what does an entrepreneur need to know in order to be successful? Yes, as according to Wikipedia’s definition, business and financial acumen are indeed needed. This is where many people see entrepreneurship start and end: the business skills of building a product, positioning yourself to a market, and growing a company as well as the financial skills of raising money, managing capital, and turning profits. These are all indeed the skills required of any competent entrepreneur, but I believe that they are not the ones that lie at the heart of entrepreneurship. Just as Disney may be incredible at designing amusement parks, creating animations, and composing music, all those skills are secondary to what lies at the heart of what Disney does and why it is so successful: making people happy by delivering a magical experience.

If you are without a deep understanding the core of what you want to do and how to do it, all the peripheral skills fall to the wayside and become meaningless. And so I believe that becoming a successful entrepreneur isn’t just about attending workshops on raising your seed round of funding or mastering the art of the pitch. The heart of entrepreneurship lies in innovation, in discovering and understanding a problem that is deeply important to people to society. It lies in having the foresight and vision to see the world differently and in having the domain skills and expertise to forge the road ahead to create the future you see. Every entrepreneur is passionate about a different problem and has deep expertise in what they’re working on, which is why there is no entrepreneurial class or conference or forum out there that can tell you what sort of innovation you should be working on and how you’ll succeed. Only you can find that on your own.

But that is what an education is for. You dive deep into a domain so that you’re prepared to be a leader in your field and to see what it’s like to be at the edge of human knowledge. You study history (not necessarily the history of civilizations, but perhaps the history of other things, like technology) and learn about the past so that you may better see into the future, because you discover that history repeats itself. You study a breadth of subjects to know more about the world we live in and you learn from the innovations in every field because oftentimes the best innovations come from somewhere outside your domain. You challenge yourself by studying hard theoretical subjects like math or philosophy not for their applications, but because the intellectual rigor will train your mind to be learn quickly, process rapidly, and see a bit further into the future by understanding the implications of all that you are exposed to.

This is why an education is important, especially for those who wish to be successful in entrepreneurship and create something truly innovative – something that requires foresight, knowledge, and lots of hard work. The other skills have their place and their time to be learned, but you must focus on what is important first. Successful entrepreneurs aren’t lucky; they know exactly what they are doing and they’ve prepared for it, which is why they succeed.