As part of its drive to build a knowledge-based economy, the UAE Cabinet has set out an ambitious plan to create “one of the most innovative nations in the world” by 2021. Among the strategies for delivering this future are plans to launch “national training and education programmes on innovation”. For educators, this is an incredible opportunity and a great challenge.
What does teaching entrepreneurship or innovation look like? And how must it evolve to be successful?
The earliest known formal university course on entrepreneurship was introduced in Japan in 1938 by Shigeru Fujii at Kobe University. The course was geared towards the small business sector and was not prescriptive in its approach. Today, entrepreneurial education programmes are anchored in the globally recognised business schools and are focused on improving the capabilities of the start-up founders.
The first taught course using this approach is often credited to Dwight Baumann of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1958, he introduced a product design course about building new companies around new products. Several of his students then became distinguished early technology entrepreneurs.
The first Entrepreneurship Research Conference, in 1979, was sponsored by Baylor University and then Babson College. It catalysed entrepreneurship as a united field of study. This new concentration offered unique potential for educators, policymakers and the graduates themselves. They were not to leave education to work as salaried employees supporting new ventures but going to start these new ventures themselves.
It is abundantly clear that this phenomenon will change global wealth distribution in an unprecedented manner. This movement of the economic centre of gravity to Asia has further crystallised the relationship between the university, entrepreneurship and the new middle class into a disruptive force that has taken a life of its own.
This unique economic moment can be the beginning of the establishment of an Asian entrepreneurial class springing up from the “rising middle class”. The successes of Asian entrepreneurs from Jack Ma of Alibaba to his Indian competitors Binny and Sachin Bansal of Flipkart are clear illustrations.
Another movement happening concurrently is the democratisation of entrepreneurship. The resources required to launch a start-up are plentiful and far-reaching, and in some cases completely free. It is much easier to access start-up funds than ever before, be it through business plan competitions or crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter. And founder education and practical advice is, today, just a Google search away. There are formalised university courses available for free through open course portals such as EdX.
Perhaps the most important contribution of universities to the spread east of entrepreneurship is its steady formalisation. A lot of the literature is founded on actual practices, and ideas are tested out on real businesses to provide insight on entrepreneurial best practices and ultimately de-risk the whole business of launching a start-up.
The last piece of the puzzle is the role of the policymakers and investors and their need to embrace the concept of a sound entrepreneurial ecosystem. Building an ecosystem is a long-term process. It begins organically at the grass roots and at all levels of public office, the investor communities, policy groups and private businesses. This is clearly evident in the UAE initiatives, where all sectors of the economy have joined forces to create a worthy climate for entrepreneurs, local and international.
This came in the form of incubators and accelerators modelled after those in Silicon Valley, such as Turn8, SeedStartup and Flat6Labs. There are government-funded initiatives such as Dtec, a centre for small, innovative businesses at Dubai Silicon Oasis.
For the public, who are only just beginning to embrace the idea of this kind of entrepreneurship, universities are stepping in to educate and evangelise. An initiative known as the Idea Lab at New York University Abu Dhabi is leaning in to educate the public on the components of the start-up scene. Founded in 2013, it has quickly grown to a considerable member of the burgeoning UAE entrepreneurial ecosystem. Events such as the Angel Rising investor symposium engaged entrepreneurs and investors on the importance and dynamics of early-stage investment.
Other efforts in this regard are through the Khalifa Fund, which is dedicated to building a local entrepreneurial class, with an endowment of just over half a billion dollars. It works in a climate where small business finance is almost scarce and engages in making grants directly to small businesses (founders can apply for loan between US$27,000 and $3 million) and indirectly through partnership programmes, such as the Ibtikari Incubator programme, The Khalifa Innovation Centre – both with Khalifa University; or the Technopreneur Competition with Abu Dhabi University.
Building an entrepreneurial base is not a case of one or the other. It involves the government creating policies conducive to business formation and, where necessary, providing support and funding avenues for entrepreneurs. Simultaneously, universities, not for profit and private sector agencies introduce programmes to sensitise the public and catalyse the entrepreneurship ecosystem. Finally, these organisations must build partnerships between each other to capture slices of the entrepreneurial market.
The stage is set for perhaps the greatest entrepreneurial challenge yet. Cultivating a class of innovative and visionary start-up founders from the bulk of the rising Asian middle class will be a massive undertaking. But if efforts to seize this opportunity are timely and precise, it will be a game changer not only for the economies of the region but also for the world at large. And just like the origins of the entrepreneurship revolution, the early seeds of the next start-up phase need to be sown at university campuses continent-wide.
Ramesh Jagannathan is the associate dean of engineering and NYU Abu Dhabi vice provost of innovation and entrepreneurship. Marie Shabaya is a technical writer at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Idea Lab.
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