My Little Entrepreneurs
Last night my entrepreneurship students were giving their final business pitches for part of their final grade. I stopped by at the coffee shop next to the auditorium to pick something up and there they were, huddled together and conspiring over their laptops and water bottles.
Not much later, there was a high-voltage buzz in the auditorium as the students had last minute discussions and waited to see everyone else’s work. I could barely quiet their excited energy to get my introductory comments across. I couldn’t wait to see what these young industrial engineers had come up with.
Instead of the reluctance I had feared, they were pushing to go first and next. As each group got up and pitched their little hearts out, fielded questions from judges and fiddled with prototypes, I had a distinct sense that they had forgotten this was an exam. They were more interested in getting investor buy-in and -surprisingly- making me proud.
In fact, the whole semester had been one twilight-zone moment after another but I hadn’t expected them to pull out such brilliant performances given their course load. They branded, they researched, they business-modeled, they printed t-shirts, spoke confidently, had presence, surveyed customers, built working prototypes… My judges were blown away.
I got home and one of my students connected with me on FB-Messages. After some chit-chat, she said, “I would have never imagined myself pitching!”
I said to her, “It was perfect. you were brilliant!”
“You know we all rocked because of you right? You’re so nice that no one wanted to disappoint you. Really!”
I ‘haha’-ed, not knowing what else to say.
“First time I see this,” she continued.
I knew it was the truth. Let me tell you how these kids changed throughout the semester.
The first couple weeks of my introductory entrepreneurship class, everyone was complaining about how much reading I was assigning, asking me what would be on the exams and nitpicking about homework and quizzes. This class was a requirement and they were there against their will.
Then one day I walked into class in the middle of midterm season. Everyone was waiting for me to begin the lecture. When I asked who had read the case study assigned for the day and got no positive responses, my smile dissolved and my shoulders dropped.
I got a bunch of excuses about the case not being posted on time, them having several midterms to study for, and so on. Maybe they had a point.
To be practical, I said, “Ok, then class is cancelled. Go and study for whatever midterms you have coming up.” I expected to hear chairs scraping and backpacks shuffling.
No one moved.
“Go guys, go!”
“Don’t be disappointed, Miss,” a cute long-haired girl said.
“Teach us something,” a guy in the back said.
“What do you want me to teach you?! The plan for today was the case. Go home!”
“Anything,” someone else went on. “What you do!”
And that, ladies and gentlefolk, blew my mind. Because third-year engineering students at a top university in the Middle East in the middle of midterm week have one hell of a course load, and when you give them class time off it’s like Christmas. Nobody says no to that. Unless they think what they’re getting instead is better.
They stayed and I pulled out an old workshop presentation on why creativity and innovation will be essential to their careers.
Back on Messages, I responded to my student at 10 pm.
“Well I was seriously impressed. I felt like everyone really wanted me to be ‘proud’.” Corny but accurate.
“But it’s true!!” she said. “Like we forgot that we were ‘graded’. We were thinking of ‘investors’ instead of grades.”
After it was all over, students came up to me one by one, asking me what I thought of their pitch, their efforts, their work. They hung back and floated around me because they didn’t want the class to be over.
One student wanted his picture taken with me because he said that this class ‘changed his life.’
I’m not saying this to boast, because I’m a coach and this is what I do. But in terms of education, I thought, how is it possible that so few teachers can get students to want to give their all in what they do?
The Three Key Elements
I went home wondering what I did differently. In a previous post, I spoke about three rules that need to be broken to create a life that matters. When I started out with my students, I was talking to a disempowered generation that was constantly seeking permission and waiting to be handed resources. Looking back on my class, I realized that I had spent the semester counter-acting the effects of this scholastic indoctrination with my own recipe. Three elements that I brought to my classroom made all the difference in the kind of energy that was output.
- Empowerment: From day one I began telling them how awesome they were and could be. I gave them ownership of their projects and their choices, I allowed them to make big decisions and change their ideas as many times as they felt was necessary. I put the big stuff in their laps, not in mine. I pushed them to enter competitions and seek funding. I started believing in them before they believed in themselves.
- Encouragement: I spent many words and a lot of breaths on encouragement, on assuring them they could do it and do it better. I motivated them and gave them examples, pushed them when necessary and praised them when deserved. I brought in guest lecturers that inspired them with success stories. I graded on progress and coached them on all kinds of issues. I provided full support inside and outside of class. I believed in them so much that they had no option but to believe in themselves.
- Environment: And the classroom environment. Oh we cursed and we laughed and we had heated discussions and no one needed permission to go pee or to leave early because I created a safe environment where I expected them to behave like big kids not toddlers. I focused on practical work and ran a collaborative classroom, workshop style where team effort was just as important as individual work. What a difference it made. What an impact it had on their self-belief and their ability.
Entrepreneurs and creatives generally meet at the intersection of mindset, motivation and skill. Without realizing it those are the areas I targeted. The empowerment positively affected each person’s mindset, encouragement and the environment totally boosted their motivation and all this was served on a platter of learning that was designed to improve their skill level.
These three elements had such a big impact on them. I started out with obedient kids waiting to comply with orders to get a grade and ended up with entrepreneurs breaking down walls to get their ideas across. They stepped up to the new line I had drawn for them and stood straighter than ever. I was as proud of them as if they were my own kids.
I didn’t teach the class. I inspired them to want to learn.
How To Take Action
- Understanding that you are in charge of your life and your decisions is the way to start. If someone empowers you, you’re lucky, if you empower yourself, you’re promising. Don’t wait for anyone to give you permission to do something or to authorize you to take a decision. Mistakes are much better than regrets.
- Find people who will encourage and support you without providing you with a laundry list of advice and unwanted guidance. Family and close friends are usually not the best at this because they worry that you’re busted in the head. Share your ideas and ambitions with on or two carefully selected friends or supportive mentors. People doing what you’re doing are generally much more supportive than those on the traditional treadmill of life.
- Believe it or not, your environment has an enormous impact on how you behave. Changing your environment is one of the easiest ways to change a behavior. I had a student who quit a very promising project simply because of the negative environment in his home. Seek out an environment that contributes to your positive momentum. There’s a reason that co-working spaces are so popular with our kind!
If you’ve been waiting for something to happen to get you moving, consider being that something and get started!