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Sparking an Entrepreneurial Mindset in College Students

By EMP Staff

Examples of innovation can be found in the most unassuming places, even a bagel shop (more on that shortly). But how do we light an entrepreneurial spark in young people to widen their eyes and minds, and actually be the innovators? When it comes right down to it, entrepreneurs are excellent discoverers of value and creative problem solvers. So, how do you teach it?

Andrew Ilnicki, Director of Digital Innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University’s da Vinci Center who teaches Product Innovation, tells his students the following story.

He remembers standing in line at Bruegger’s many years ago noticing a man ask the clerk to take the catch tray from underneath ALL the bagels and empty the fallen seasonings into his to-go bag. It was clear from the interaction that the clerk had never been asked to do this before. Completely puzzled, Ilnicki watched all the seasonings discarded from the bagels and into the man’s bagel bag. And off he went.

Fast-forward 25 years and we can now make the safe assumption that this seasoning-grabbing gentleman had an idea of how far bagel seasonings could go.

Today, the seasoning from “everything” bagels is on all kinds of products. And it’s sold as a separate seasoning (thank you, innovative gentleman from Bruegger’s).

Ilnicki wishes he had been nurtured with entrepreneurial thinking in his formative years and encouraged to act on these kinds of insights—incubating beyond his own experiments in the kitchen. Then, perhaps he too would have guided us toward disruptive innovation potentials. He explains that perhaps fear of failure, ridicule, lack of effort, and comfortability with conformity kept him in his lane and away from further developing what has become a proven winner in several markets.

That also speaks to the reality of the situation we are more familiar with as humans who’ve had a great idea but not acted on it. Ideas alone are worth nothing, execution is everything.

Professor Sitting and Talking with Student

Do students have a personal mindset rooted in creative problem-solving, creating new value and delivering a product that others want to adopt? THAT’S the difference.

As Ilnicki’s example illustrates, entrepreneurship is not management; it’s a process of discovery. The purpose of intentionally integrating an entrepreneurial mindset is to help students see opportunities around them with new eyes, instead of searching for entirely new lands. And that the process of searching requires search skills—skills that anyone can learn to develop, yet skills that have historically been undervalued or ignored.

As French novelist Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but seeing with new eyes.”

Students must learn that, whether developing a new product or service, lots of good ideas are already out there. The biggest impact comes in combining them in new ways.

Shawn Carson, Coordinator of Entrepreneurship Studies at Haslam College of Business, University of Tennessee says, “we emphasize active learning over theory and old school academic learning. We teach the basic frameworks like Ideation, Customer Discovery, Business Models and Elevator Pitches. Each student must choose an idea, determine the market potential, interview customers and put together a financial forecast and a business model. That walks them through the process of entrepreneurship. Those who show interest and passion are encouraged to take part in several of our pitch competitions where they can earn cash for competing against their peers.”

Each semester, Carson, an Entrepreneurial Mindset Profile® (EMP) Certified Practitioner, and his colleagues have approximately 300 students in their Introduction to Entrepreneurship classes. There, they implement the Entrepreneurial Mindset Profile® (EMP) assessment tool as part of an assignment. The tool uses 14 Scales that have been found to distinguish entrepreneurial thinkers from non-entrepreneurial thinkers. Students use the findings to analyze their EMP results and develop an action plan to improve on the traits and skills they identified as worthy of attention.

They are also putting into place new programming within career development to get the students thinking that entrepreneurship is a valid career path, just like any other job opportunity.

Fashion Designer with Tape Measure Around Her Neck

As Ilnicki and Carson know, a key part of the entrepreneurial mindset is to be able to course-correct, learn from mistakes, and move on. Entrepreneurship professors consider hurdles to be learning opportunities. Students learn that failing is learning and part of the process.

Even outside of the classroom, communicate with your students with messages that reinforce the mindset change you are seeking to achieve in your course. Help them develop their “new eyes” and see the world in a new way.

The Entrepreneurial Mindset Profile® (EMP) [] is an excellent way to get an in-depth view of the entrepreneurial mindset and see how your personality traits and skill sets compare to those of corporate managers and entrepreneurs. Available online, the EMP provides scores on 14 scales including Risk Acceptance, Passion, Need to Achieve, Future Focus, Idea Generation and Persistence among others. The EMP Feedback Report comes with a debrief video and a comprehensive Development Guide for continuous improvement.

There are currently 600+ EMP Certified Practitioners in 39 countries, and almost half of them represent more than 215 colleges and universities worldwide, many of them using the EMP in classes, programs, research and campus-based entrepreneurship centers. The other half of the EMP Practitioner base largely is comprised of coaches, consultants, trainers, psychologists, HR professionals, founders and executives who use the EMP in a wide range of organizations and industries.

Want to learn more about EMP Certification and how you can use it in your organization? Email us at [email protected] or visit the Certification page of the EMP website to see how you can start using the EMP with your clients and students.