February 24, 2024

A growing breed of educators wants to equip students with business-like skills.
IS it possible to teach entrepreneurship?
Given the increasing number of programs designed to do that in Western Australia, from schools through to those for new business owners, many clearly believe the answer is yes.
After years of focus on ‘innovation’, there is a subtle shift taking place in the pre-tertiary education space.
Led by the private school sector, there is a growing number of schools teaching entrepreneurship.
Among the most advanced is the Carmel School in Dianella, which established a course three years ago.
It is compulsory for all year nine students and then can be an elective for year 10s.
Perhaps the most ambitious is St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls, which embarked on a deep and broad approach to entrepreneurship, embedding it from primary age to seniors in an immersive approach to the concept of equipping its graduates with the skills of the future.
Unsurprisingly, schools choosing this path say there is demand from parents for something other than a fixation on results and getting into university.
“There is absolutely an appetite in our community for this kind of approach,” St Hilda’s principal Fiona Johnston told Business News.
Most of WA’s universities offer some form of study for budding entrepreneurs, although generally these are adjuncts to business studies.
Curtin University is already the leader in this area in WA but is formulating plans to drive entrepreneurialism across the university and, significantly, into the school system.
There is a precedent for this. St Catherine’s College–which offers residential accommodation for tertiary students next to the University of Western Australia and on campus at Curtin–has already taken its Bloom co-working space and entrepreneurship program hub concept into the school sphere.
The energy being focused on schools follows a longer-running effort at the pointy end of the university sector.
After watching graduates of universities in the US such as Stanford and MIT launching unicorn after unicorn, students, academics and university management in Australia have long wanted to become better at commercialisation.
It is hard to say they have had much in the way of success, yet.
Again, Curtin is viewed as the best of breed in this sense in WA, with several programs to assist budding businesspeople, a sophisticated connection with industry, and some clever development-friendly infrastructure.
Its efforts in that area have been recognised recently with $50 million of federal government funding from its Trailblazer program.
Curtin was one of five institutions named nationally to develop a commercialisation hub to turn research outputs into breakthrough services, products and businesses.
Centre for Entrepreneurial Research and Innovation founder Charlie Bass is one who credits Curtin as being the most advanced in that sense in WA, but he feels the state is well behind many other parts of the world in terms of wanting university-spawned ideas to flourish into commercial enterprises.
Mr Bass founded CERI in 2015 to help students and academics bridge the gap between their ideas and the creation of a successful business.
He believes we need to become better at generating wealth from ideas, as resources are finite.
“It is not overnight, it will be generational, but we have to start somewhere,” Mr Bass said.
There is some irony in the fact that WA is seen as a laggard in the adoption of entrepreneurship in curricula.
School children of today and many people well into adulthood are unlikely to know the story of WA’s so-called ‘four-on-the-floor’ entrepreneurs, who made global headlines in the 1980s but ultimately came a cropper due to their dodgy business practices and grubby relationships with politicians during a period dubbed WA Inc.
Initially their success was viewed as something uniquely from WA, in part because of our state’s remoteness that led to people thinking differently.
Roger Smith and Barry Urquhart called it the ‘Jindalee Factor’ in a 1988 book by that title, adopting the name of the Australia-developed radar system that could look over the horizon.
People such as Alan Bond and Laurie Connell, as well as many of the other businessmen mentioned in that book, crashed and burned soon after its publication, giving entrepreneurialism a bad name in WA for a long time.
Rather than solving problems for a profitable outcome as a true entrepreneur intends, history suggests they were simply motived by greed.
Many older Perth business types will remember the difficulty in raising capital during the 1990s due to the lasting impact of WA Inc, when east coast financiers regarded the state as a haven for cowboys who had little regard for the rules of commerce.
There is further irony that Mr Bass made his first fortune during this time, albeit far removed from WA Inc.
He was an entrepreneurial geologist and an early adopter of software to drive analysis of exploration data.
And unlike those high-profile failures of the 1980s, Mr Bass and business partner Tony Poli were successful with their first venture together, later boosting their fortunes via an iron ore play called Aquila Resources.
Mr Bass stayed well and truly beneath radar until he launched CERI.
Mr Bass is cautious about two elements of the current push towards schools in WA.
Firstly, because he thinks entrepreneurialism is innate and cannot really be taught.
Secondly, he believes promoting the concept in schools is better aimed at lower socio-economic areas where there is less employment and university is not always an obvious choice.
Even in the programs CERI had run, he said, a lot of the academics or students developing startups came from walks of life outside the mainstream.
“We have a lot of people who come through here where English is their second language and they are not from places as affluent as here,” Mr Bass said.
“Is a kid from the western suburbs going to do their own thing?
“Some will but real innovation comes out of lower socio-economic area because they have no choice.”
He points to an institution he has been guided by, the Kaufmann Foundation in the US state of Missouri, which has dedicated much of its resources to promoting entrepreneurialism in poorer areas as a way of accelerating development and lifting people from poverty.
And teaching entrepreneurship? “It is wrong to say teach,” Mr Bass said.
“That is how to do something, whether it is in uni or school, how to build a skill.
“Entrepreneurship is a mindset.
“How do you teach a mindset, it is experiential, or seeing things or hearing guest entrepreneurs.
“It is not teaching in the classical sense.”
He said while small children asked questions, most kids were soon disabused of that habit after a short time at school.
“What we do here is we try to strip people back from the status quo,” Mr Bass said.
“[We ask] where do you see yourself, what is your vision?”
Despite Mr Bass’s philosophical opposition to the concept of teaching entrepreneurialism, there does not seem much daylight between his view and that of those focused on offering it as a subject or driving it deeper into curricula.
Many educators acknowledge school students are often too young to know what they want to be but gaining skills that are useful to starting a business are compatible with success in other fields.
Marnie LeFevre, an entrepreneur and founder of female-focused business coaching group Fempire, agrees that mindset is key to whether someone can learn to be an entrepreneur.
However, she is adamant so many of the skills required can be taught and schools are a good place to start. In the case of women, many do not consider running a business until they have children and find themselves in conflict with the demands of their previous career, she said.
Ms Lefevre worked as a marketing executive before she became a full-time mum, launching her own business from a tiny home office (a closet) as an escape from the new routines of her life.
From a successful marketing agency, she went on to launch or partner in several businesses globally and wrote an Amazon bestseller called Out of the Closet for women entrepreneurs.
Ultimately, she became a coach and then started a business certifying female business coaches. “Entrepreneurship is my wheelhouse,” Ms LeFevre told Business News.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur and marketer for 20 years and I’ve been a small business coach and mentor for over eight years.
“What entrepreneurs need to know first, which most people don’t necessarily, is they need to know themselves.
“They need to know their values, what drives them, why they’re starting business.
“If they take the time to do that before they launch a business, they’ll probably save themselves thousands and a lot of heartache.”
Ms LeFevre said she was excited by the prospect of entrepreneurship and the many skills it entailed becoming as important in schools as learning a language.
She said there were many skills in entrepreneurship that translated into great life skills, pointing to time management, budgeting, leadership, creativity, resilience, motivation, personal brand, networking and sales, among others.
All of this, she said, added to the richness of a child’s education and, ultimately, their life experience by helping make choices in the future.
Nevertheless, Ms LeFevre said having skills did not by itself make one an entrepreneur, it just helped those who chose that difficult path.
“We can all have a go, but I would say that not just anybody can do it,” she said.
Former Wesley College director of digital transformation and innovation Luke Callier who will move to St Hilda’s to run its program, is one who sees the opportunity to accelerate a trend in society and bridge the gap between earning extra income to true entrepreneurial development.
“Teaching entrepreneurship is more about entrepreneurial capability,” Mr Callier said.
He said it was not just showing young people how to solve problems but also inspiring them about what they could achieve if they found a problem they wanted to solve.
Additionally, there was value in helping kids understand that learning how to solve small problems might build up to attempting something much bigger; an entrepreneurial enterprise that could take up a big part of their lives.
“Part of it is when you are 15 to 22 you are in the perfect time of your life to try little side businesses,” Mr Callier said.
“You have no overheads, but you don’t necessarily know what the problems are to solve.
“You don’t learn that until you are in the workforce.
“At that early age you can have little businesses that don’t need to take years of your life.
“It might just be buying something at one price and selling it another.
“Not enough people think about that instead of a cafe job.”
Mr Callier said the challenge in schools had been parental emphasis on preparing students for traditional career pathways.
There was also the fear of students making money from their peers.
“You don’t want to see kids taking advantage of other kids,” he said.
However, the world was changing, and more children were seeing their peers and young adults make money from a variety of sources such as games, podcasts or social media reviews.
“More kids these days are thinking about being a creator,” Mr Callier said.
While there is a conservative view that parents want their children focused on finishing year 12 and going to university, schools that spoke to Business News said parents backed the new approach.
Carmel School entrepreneur educator Anna Lee, who established the course at the Dianella private school in 2020, said there was demand for this kind of approach to education.
“There is a whole new breed of parents who are not just about getting ATAR,” Ms Lee said.
“They want to see value-add for their children.”
To show how much this concept is in its infancy, Carmel is considered a leader in this field in WA, having developed the program it teaches using its own resources and coupled with the US-based Uncharted Learning curriculum.
The Carmel course is for years nine and 10, with the first year being compulsory and the second year an elective.
Ms Lee said most of the year 10s had opted to continue with their entrepreneurial studies after year nine.
She said there had been a lot of debate and discussion about what the essence of the course should be.
“We tossed and turned on this for quite a while,” Ms Lee said.
Initially, there was a strong thematic about coming up with an idea for a business and building.
“Whatever we did, it needed to include problem solving,” she said.
“They [the students] need to deeply think about problems in their lives and the lives of their families.
“After a year we decided that not every child is cut out to run a business at the age of 14.
“We shifted to future-focused skills.
“We went from thinking we would churn out businesspeople to [developing] skills that they could use in any job or career in the future.”
The skills can be anything from practical financial knowledge to pitching and presentation.
The Carmel teacher said many less-academic students valued this type of learning; often they had jobs or even their own micro business on the side.
Ironically, a lot of the concepts being taught are university level, which presents its own challenges with a young cohort.
“That is what is hard, fitting something that is real-world into something like a curriculum which is quite old,” Ms Lee said.
She hoped future students who pass her course may gain some accreditation for their achievements when they sought admission to university.
St Hilda’s is a more recent adopter of entrepreneurialism, but the top-ranked single-sex school has taken a deeper dive into the concept, making it compulsory from year five through to year 10 in the banner ESSTEAM, an acronym for entrepreneurship and sustainability through science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
It has applied the Uncharted Learning curriculum from the Chicago-based not for profit, which claims to have worked with more than 300 schools.
“The entrepreneurial mindset fits in a tiny way in the national curriculum,” principal Fiona Johnston said.
“We believe it should be integral.”
Ms Johnston is another who believes the marketplace is demanding such a change.
“There is absolutely an appetite in our community for this kind of approach,” she said.
St Hilda’s is devoting a $5 million centre to entrepreneurial studies, repurposing an old building on its campus as a home to the project’s staff.
The ecosystem of entrepreneurial teaching is growing in WA, albeit from a small base.
One noticeable element is its home-grown nature, notwithstanding the US influence or the fact that WA is viewed as being years behind other states in the development of this aspect of education.
Locals reckon the state is a decade and a half behind the development of courses in the US.
“I have met teachers [in the US] who have been doing this for 10 years and this is their entire job’,” Ms Lee said.
Ms Lee worked at Bloom for Schools, part of the Bloom co-working space and entrepreneurship program run out of St Catherine’s College, a residential accommodation operator near UWA and on campus at Curtin, which has been taking programs into the classroom in recent years.
Bloom is supported by the Steinberg family’s Malka Foundation, a charitable organisation that spent about $2 million in the past year on this kind of funding and is expected to ramp up its spending in this field.
Malka is also thought to sponsor the Carmel School program, although it is not mentioned by name.
Malka is also backing Curtin University, which has big plans in the field and is recruiting a team to push entrepreneurship across its students and into schools.
Curtin has something of a track record in this space.
In 2013, for example, Lainey Weiser launched Just Start IT as a program focused on tech startups for school children with the intention of attracting students to study information systems at the university.
In recent weeks, Curtin commercialisation director Rohan McDougall has recruited Danelle Cross back from St Hilda’s to be one of his key executives in driving the university’s new program.
Ms Cross was head of executive education for Curtin’s business and law faculty until late last year, a role which oversaw entrepreneurial programs such as Curtin Ignition for startups.
St Hilda’s has already recruited a replacement, poaching Wesley’s Luke Callier to head ESSTEAM.
Mr Callier has touched a few organisations in this space, including CERI, where it is understood he assisted with curriculum design work.
But the ecosystem goes beyond that.
Most teaching in this field acknowledges the need to showcase real examples of entrepreneurial endeavour.
Naturally, schools and universities rely on their alumni and other linkages such as parent bodies to source guest speakers.
Nevertheless, there is a small pool of relatable success stories doing the rounds.
An example is Student Edge founder Jeremy Chetty, who is listed as a mentor and adviser at Bloom.
Mr Chetty is also involved with alternative education pathway provider IDEA Innovation Design Entrepreneurship Academy, which is also supported by Fogarty Foundation chair Annie Fogarty.
One of WA’s most successful entrepreneurs, Timezone founder Malcolm Steinberg, has contributed in this way as well as driving development through Malka.
A year ago, he presented at St Catherine’s College highlighting his WIN strategy, being W for ‘watch out for opportunities’, I for ‘immediately develop a strategy’ and N for ‘never procrastinate’.
Mr Steinberg told Business News he found questions about the ability to teach entrepreneurship intriguing.
“I have heard that question debated before, but reality is that every young person has a desire to improve the quality of their life,” Mr Steinberg said.
“They either do that by creating their own wealth or indirectly benefit from the wealth generated by the general community through redistribution from government.
“Malka’s challenge is to make people aware of opportunities that exist.
“We know that, in reality, only a small percentage of them will take advantage of those opportunities.
“I have been carrying [my] WIN card around in my wallet for 35 years.
“I created it to give to staff and other people to encourage them to participate in the entrepreneurial process.”
Malka chair Nicole Lockwood said the charitable organisation had partnered with several secondary and tertiary education providers, although Curtin and Bloom were its main beneficiaries.
“The goal is funding organisations that can spread this capability around the system,” Ms Lockwood said.
Malka said the focus was helping schools work out the best way to integrate this material into their curriculum.
“The school curriculum is very full and one of the issues is to find ways to fit this content into a busy program and complement what is going on and help more schools take advantage of it,” she said.
Ms Lockwood said schools in low socio-economic areas were a particular target.
“It’s for kids who would not otherwise get that opportunity,” she said.
“We are trying to make this accessible to all children.
“Some of the private schools and even some of the larger state schools have already embedded this in their schools.
“Some kids are not suited to the school environment. “Sometimes they are the best entrepreneurs, they are thinking differently.”
Ms Lockwood said while many educators realised entrepreneurship involved key future-facing skills, re-orienting an entire system was challenging.
“I think everyone is in agreement that the skills kids need for the future are not being met by the current system,” she said.
“We are not trying to break the system; we are trying to enhance it.”
Ms Lockwood said logistics was a key component.
“How to make this work with a system that is already too full,” she said.
“Teachers feel that pressure every day.
“We have to be clever in the way we package this to make it as easy as possible for schools to take this on.”
Curtin’s Rohan McDougall has big ambitions about achieving curriculum-wide change over time.
He said Curtin’s track record in encouraging staff, students and alumni towards commercialisation opportunities, including its Ignition and Accelerate programs, had brought the university to the attention of those who wanted to take entrepreneurship deeper into the education sector.
Mr McDougall said Malka started to encourage Curtin to think of a long-term pathway towards inspiring more people to be entrepreneurial.
“It was about helping people decide what their options are before they go too far down one career or industry,” he said.
“With the support of Malka, we are looking at a long-term pipeline to inspire and raise awareness for more kids that there are these options for them to consider.”
The project’s purpose is to have entrepreneurial thinking become part of Curtin’s identity and pervade the whole institution.
The project also has the benefit of Trailblazer funding.
Although specifically targeted at the resources sector in Curtin’s case, Trailblazer’s focus is on commercialisation, which dovetails with the entrepreneurial messaging and, with university commitments and expected industry contributions, creates a $200 million pool to create momentum.
Mr McDougall said the university’s approach to working with schools would be phased.
Initially, it will help develop school programs, provide immersive experiences on campus and train teachers as part of its approach while it seeks to embed entrepreneurial thinking in the curriculum over time.
“That is the long-term aim, and we understand how difficult that is to achieve,” Mr McDougall said.
“We will start with the willing.”
He said Curtin was reacting to an increased appetite in schools and on campus, as it became clear that entrepreneurial skills gave students more flexibility and diverse employment options, while starting a business was viewed as much easier than in the past.
However, many in the school system are overwhelmed by current demands and teachers would struggle to implement new thinking.
“Responding to feedback we get from state schools, for instance, is they can’t do another program,” Mr McDougall said.
“Having another thing that teachers need to teach is not helping.
“If you think about the state-wide system you have to think about how you embed into the existing system, not add stuff on because you drown the teachers who are really struggling.
“They are very stressed.”


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