Enterprise for All was a one day conference organised on behalf of emda by Unleashing Enterprise with a mixture of key note presentations and workshop sessions.
A few things really struck me about it. From the key note speakers and a tour of the exhibition hall it was clear just how much of a grip business and economic development interests have on the enterprise agenda. Enterprise really IS all about business. Business start ups, business growth and business education.
Except of course enterprise has relevance in many, perhaps all, spheres of life. It relates to parenting, cello playing, footballing and planning. To mathematics, politics and dance. An enterprising approach helps with business, yes, but it helps with so much more as well. Because an enterprising person is someone who has a theory about the direction ‘in which progress lies’, and has the confidence, strategies and skills that they need to pursue it. By conflating enterprise with business we do it a disservice. We alienate many who should be our natural allies, and we repel some who we should attract.
Business is a great vehicle for teaching enterprise – but so too is sport, art, history and drama. In Bolivia, enterprise education has been conducted largely through the power of classical music.
I was deeply surprised when another speaker said that ‘Business is Easy’. This has not been my experience. Business is hard. And small business is really hard. There have been times when it has been so difficult that I have though it must be me doing it wrong. And I talk with some of my closest confidantes about my fears and they tell me ‘No – it’s not you, it IS hard’. One mistake and your reputation is shot. It can take over your life and ruin your relationships with friends and family. It can leave you depressed and in debt. It can also be the most wonderful platform for personal development and a fulfilled life. It really is a double-edged sword!
I have never met an entrepreneur, until yesterday, who has told me that business is easy. This is the ‘Enterprise Fairytale’. I would agree that it is relatively easy to theorise about business. To develop ideas, to refine them and to think about business plans. To get advice from business experts and to act on it, or not. All this is quite easy. On paper, it certainly isn’t differential calculus. But in practice it is something else. It is easy to imagine yourself juggling, or being an astronaut or a pop star. Actually doing it is another thing. It is NEVER easy! Good enterprise education needs to help learners to recognise the ‘double edged’ nature of the sword and recognise that a career in business will not be a glorious extension of a 2 day facilitated workshop held in the comfort of the college hall. It just won’t be. Good enterprise education nurtures the resilience, character, determination and commitment that is required to succeed in business or any other challenge that life throws our way. It teaches the importance of craft and skill, of persistence and commitment. And knowing when might be the right time to give up.
And the strange thing is that in my experience, the more honest we are about the challenges of entrepreneurship, the emotional, analytical, physical and financial challenges involved the more likely we are to get good, enduring entrepreneurs. The more we help people to recognise how hard it is to leave the comfort zones and try something different the more likely they are risk it.
I was very struck when another keynote speaker told us about a primary school class that wanted to sell him a presentation. An 8-year-old offered to sell him the copyright! Now I am all for educating young people about the importance of intellectual property, but at 8? Is this really what enterprise education should be for such young children? A Primary Business Curriculum?
Now this is a contested area. No-one holds the truth on this. In enterprise education we have little consensus on curriculum, assessment or methodology. But I know that if my 8-year-old had come home from school telling me that they had been learning about copyright I would be seriously questioning the schools priorities for primary education. I have witnessed primary classes being taught the difference between tangible and intangible brands. And I was once approached in a Leeds hotel by a girl of 6 or 7 wearing a badge that said ‘Sales Executive’. She knew exactly what margin she would make if she could sell me the beetroot plant that she was brandishing. Are we really introducing appropriate content at the right time into the classroom? Do we deserve the respect of our colleagues as educators when we teach this in the primary school? I am not so sure.
Throughout the day I was approached by a number of people who made very similar comments. ‘Mike, I agree with you wholeheartedly, but we only get paid for outcomes related to business. I know it isn’t right, but if that is what the funders are paying for that is what we have to provide. It is what the system demands’. I love the irony of this. ‘We teach enterprise by following instructions’. But I think it points to a wider challenge for the policy makers and the funders. Does this ‘head on’ approach to entrepreneurship really work?
The title of the conference was also telling – Unleashing Enterprise. Much of the socialisation of young people is all about putting the leash on them. We value compliance, academic achievement, team playing and conforming. Those that dare to see things differently, to do things differently, to paddle their own canoe, tend to be bought back into line, or expelled. And it is not only enterprise that we struggle to unleash. Creativity, leadership, innovation, potential…all of these have been subject to the leash fetish.
I have not done much on the enterprise conference circuit. I have worked in community centres, village halls and at kitchen tables helping individuals and communities to develop their own approach to a more enterprising future. It was a new experience for me. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone – and as always happened I learned a lot!