What’s In a Word?

I recently attended the Education Uncubed Conference in New York City.  While any trip to the big city is a welcome opportunity, this one was particularly energizing.  During the three day long conference, we worked in small groups talking through the idea of entrepreneurship education and entrepreneurship as a career path for students.  One of the most interesting points that has stuck in mind since then is the idea of the word “entrepreneurship.”  “Entrepreneurship” is one of those words that you can ask ten people to define – and then receive ten different definitions.  I believe that this is the root of an issue that many entrepreneurship education programs deal with.  

How do you convince students throughout an entire university to consider entrepreneurship as an opportunity for growth when there is no consistent definition of the term?  

One person at the conference mentioned that they were considering using the word “innovation” in place of the word “entrepreneurship” –  I understand where they are coming from, but I’m not sure that it sends the most accurate message either, at least as I would apply it to NC State.  The thought process behind the change makes sense and is something that I have thought about quite often since the conversation.  Does the word “entrepreneurship” define who you are, thus making it an intimidating word for students who can’t see any application for entrepreneurship other than starting a business?  Does the word “innovation” define a skill that is easier to relate to, easier to apply across a variety of career options, and easier to learn and put into practice?  

After much thought and consideration, I think that these are very valid and relevant questions that can and should lead to reconsiderations in how we approach our work with students.  I have always preferred the term “entrepreneurial thinking” to the word “entrepreneurship” for this very reason, but I’m not sure that the term “entrepreneurial thinking” is enough without further elaboration.  In my mind, entrepreneurial thinking speaks to a set of skills that is diverse, ever-evolving and uniquely applied by each individual to each unique situation that they are in.  It involves learning to see the world through different eye: to not only see problems, but to take ownership of solving those problems; to want to lead change every step of the way from idea to implementation; to not want all of the questions and steps neatly laid out in a pretty rubric, but to use one’s natural curiosity and confidence to think and create and course-correct and find answers and make choices; to not just ask for the right questions and the right answers, but to seek out the most interesting questions and to consider what all of the available options might be; to approach each opportunity by considering how to create value out of that set of circumstances.  

I could go on and on, but hopefully, you get the point!  Now to my original dilemma: how do we make this accessible and inviting to any student?  How do we help all students see that they too can develop their own skills as an entrepreneurial thinker – that they can then apply to anything that they choose to accomplish throughout their lives?  How do we redefine entrepreneurship across our campus as a word that makes students feel inspired and hopeful as opposed to just conjuring images of Mark Zuckerberg?  Do we use our own entrepreneurial thinking abilities to create a new word that re-defines this set of skills?  Do we choose our battles and just keep trying to impact as many students as we can using the current crazy state of definitions as they exist now?  I don’t know if there is one “right” answer for NC State, but I know that these questions are worth thinking about as we move forward.

What do you think about these questions?  Let us know in the comments section!

Jenn Capps is the director of academic programs for the EI, World’s Greatest Aunt to her nieces and nephews, and perpetual binge watcher of Project Runway, Mysteries at the Museum, and The Royals.  She has taught entrepreneurship courses to almost 2500 students and is a three time alumna of NC State.  In her free time, she pursues her shoe obsession, visits flea markets and antique stores, and has been known to accidentally set the vacuum cleaner on fire.