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The American Entrepreneurial Spirit

by Guest Writter
W. Gary Sitton, Author, Fire Up Your Startup and Keep it Up

In 2004, I taught a graduate class in the School of Engineering titled “Technical Startups”. There were 17 enrolled students, six of whom were international students. In 2014, I taught the same class with 25 students, twelve of whom were international. Currently in my spring 2015 class, eight out of the nine enrolled students are East Indian. Nearly all of the students in these three classes are graduate students in Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering and Computer Science.

Even though the class sizes are small, and any inferences that I might make are purely anecdotal, I can’t help but wonder if the profile of each class may be an indicator of some underlying issues. For example, has there been a shift, over the years, in the proportion of American-born students as compared to international students in engineering classes? Entrepreneurship courses? Has there been a decline in American student interest in starting a company? What can be done to incentivize Americans to pursue the American Dream? Answers to these questions involve speculation, to be sure.

In this blog, I invite other faculty members who have taught entrepreneurial classes to weigh in on these questions.

The US Small Business Administration shows that 60% of all startups fail within four years; 30% fail within two years; and most alarming, only 18% of first-time startups succeed. Has our society drifted to a point where a “fear of failure” mentality causes more of our nation’s youth to “seek a job” rather than “make a job?”

Certainly, there has been an explosive growth in entrepreneurship programs at the university level over the past decade. Such courses help future entrepreneurs understand the importance of a sustainable revenue stream. They also provide students with knowledge of marketing and sales, human resources, business law, basic accounting, customer support, quality assurance, employee retention and recognition, research and development, startup funding, realistic budget preparation and the importance of metrics to assess budget-to-actual performance. However, these classes don’t necessarily teach the “entrepreneurial attitude” required of founders of startups.

Classes such as mine address these topics, but developing a “final exam” to determine how to start a successful business seems folly.  While there are many standard skills which can help a startup succeed, each business is unique unto itself. What may help is for a respected organization, such as the AICPA, to recommend a selected reading list of contemporary business books to help the startup understand the many aspects of running a successful business. Innovation incubators also have shown progress in helping startups gain a foothold. Also, entrepreneur centers associated with universities show promise. Having retired executives volunteer mentoring is also helpful.

But my main suggestion is to reach the future entrepreneur while they are young.  I suggest that we can help more businesses succeed, and improve on the 18% statistic, by encouraging young people to engage in entrepreneurism early, and to integrate entrepreneurial thinking into K-12 schools.

Instilling the entrepreneurial spirit in young people shows great promise. Getting the word out to middle and high school students is the goal of SAGE, Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship. Their mission is to “create the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders whose innovations address some of the world’s most urgent needs”. Dr. Curt DeBerg, SAGE founder, has launched programs in twenty-one countries and seven states. Dr. DeBerg and his colleagues have developed teacher workshops and school licensing initiatives to foster and grow the mission.

The fuel that fires commerce has always been the American entrepreneurial spirit.  It is quite important to explore initiatives that will encourage people to achieve the American Dream of starting your own business.


About the Author

W. Gary Sitton received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from California State University, Chico where he now teaches. His 2014 spring class was the catalyst that led Gary to write the book, Fire Up Your Startup and Keep It Up. He received his Ph.D. in computer science from University of Alberta. Sitton is also a member of a number of local boards including the Gateway Science Museum.

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