Entrepreneurial guru Eric Reis put it something like this: Centuries
from now people will laugh about entrepreneurship today, the way we laugh at
other industries and processes that were getting their start a century ago.
What we know of entrepreneurship today is the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
Here's the first long-standing question: Is an entrepreneur born or can people learn entrepreneurship and
adopt the necessary characteristics and skills for success?
I conducted a very unscientific bit of
research among teachers, investors, and entrepreneurs. Everyone agreed: people can learn entrepreneurship. That fits nicely with the
framework of what those of us who work in education believe -- namely that given opportunities and access to
an excellent education, all children have the potential to succeed. So wouldn't we
say the same about the “potential” of someone with a great idea and the drive to
make it happen? Jeff Scheur, who founded NoRedInk after years of teaching English, puts it this way: “I've devoted my career to education precisely because of the conviction
that people can learn and evolve when provided the right resources.” And Wayee Chu, who helps pick seed investments at NewSchools
Venture Fund, says it simply: “Entrepreneurship is a mindset."
Becoming An Entrepreneur (Starting a Venture)
So what characteristics suggest that someone has an entrepreneurial bent? Here are the six that came up in my conversations:
That last may cause belly aches, but I couldn’t in good
conscience skip it. If you’re
considering starting a business, you’ll need to ask people to
believe in you and to convince them to give you money. This involves some additional
combination of winning personality and unrelenting self-confidence.
A few more that perhaps should be on the list: Adaptable, resourceful,
driven. As both a former teacher and entrepreneur, I love that “pure
Sound like a few great teachers you know?
So true… from Sunday night lesson-planning, to the last
hour of a long teaching day, to working most hours of seven straight days to
launch a new product. And then waking up and doing it over, again and again.
And Alan Louie (Imagine K12) shared the imperative to be comfortable with ambiguity. Louie likens it to
whitewater kayaking--embracing a paradigm in which you must course-correct at
lightening speed. While teachers may be perceived as professionals who thrive
on schedules planned down to the minute, many also have this knack for quick reactions. If you get very frustrated with the unknown,
entrepreneurship may not be for you.
Teachers in Developing Education Innovations
So what’s the tipping point for
deciding to start something? Nicole Tucker-Smith, a teacherpreneur at LessonCast,
said, “I decided to stop talking about what would make a difference in education
and start building it.” Mike Metzger describes realizing we aren’t just
fighting an achievement gap but an opportunity gap. As a second-year teacher in Arizona,
he started an ACT test-prep program and advocated to make his school a testing
site, helping to eliminate test-taking barriers. Sheer drive, but also
luck (such as the right time and place) contribute to taking the leap.
One cautionary note for starting a
venture: it helps to step outside of your own experiences. Meredith Ely of Learnboost
wrote, “Being able to iterate on the thoughts, suggestions, and real-world
use-cases of teachers practicing in a variety of settings is much more
meaningful than building a product that would have helped me.”
So are teacherpreneurs on the
rise? Maybe, if we’re literal (teacher-turned-entrepreneur). But if
we define them as “teacher innovators,” then they’ve always existed. And they
share many of the above characteristics.
Great teachers innovate every day. They
write and rewrite lesson plans, find out new ways to reach struggling students,
contribute summer hours to overhauling curricula or giving feedback to a new
education technology venture. They learn continuously, hone their craft and
keep up with emerging technologies. They set a vision for their students
derived from empathy for them, their families and communities and hold on
tenaciously to those visions.
That's all about innovating within the system; innovation for (or really, disrupting) the system is critical too: sometimes, only disruption brings substantial change such as a more level playing field for all students. .At the end of the day, you may have
what it takes to start a venture, or you may have a powerful impact through
innovations in your classroom or other work. But some of you will take a huge leap
of faith, embrace risk and deep uncertainty and disrupt entire systems.
I, for one, can't wait to see the power of the innovations that teacherpreneurs will unleash on education.
Nihal ElRayess works on Teach For
America's Technology Solutions team. Her career has ranged from teaching 1st
grade to product
management at a TechCrunch50 Finalist startup. She resides in the Bay Area with her aviation-obsessed 2
year-old daughter, Leila, and husband, Brian. The comments expressed here are her own views and do not represent Teach For