A new business school course which puts entrepreneurship on the main menu

Ms Yogavelli "Yogi" Nambiar (right), CEO of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, struck a cord when she asked at the recent Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla: "Why is it that business schools tend to still have entrepreneurship as a side dish, rather than at the core of the main menu?'' The Allan Gray Orbis Foundation funds and mentors young people in Southern Africa with entrepreneurial potential.

Nambiar posed this question as part of her introduction to the session Rethinking the Role of Business Schools on 16 September. That question perfectly led in Dr Jonathan Mark's presentation about Developing an Entrepreneurship-focused MBA that brings together the Entrepreneurship Ecosystem.

Ms Yogavelli Nambiar

Dr Marks is a senior lecturer at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), the University of Pretoria's business school. He said it had always been the intention of GIBS "to show how we could create entrepreneurship as a central point of the MBA".

The entrepreneurship Master of Business Administration (MBA) is a second-year specialisation that students can choose after they have completed their first year of MBA at GIBS. The first cohort graduated in 2019.

The thinking about entrepreneurship that led to the design of the course

Dr Marks said the course was not created as a knee-jerk reaction to try to read what's going on in the market, but has strong theoretical underpinnings. He was influenced by the work of professors Heidi Neck and Patricia Greene at Babson College, the private business school in Massachusetts in the US that focuses on entrepreneurship education. They have written about how the study of entrepreneurship has progressed.

Dr Jonathan Marks
Dr Jonathan Marks, Senior Lecturer at the University of Pretoria's Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).

First, the idea was that a successful entrepreneur programme needed to dissect the personality of the successful entrepreneur. This gave way to the understanding that entrepreneurship is a process, a world of planning and prediction, often going together with a business plan. And this is where most programmes tend to stop, said Dr Marks, which both Neck and Green believe is because the business plan is a beautiful plan to assess. Go any further and it's a nightmare.

The new GIBS MBA is based on the idea of entrepreneurship as a method rather than a process. It is about teaching a set of principles to suit what entrepreneurs are going to do in the world around them, bearing in mind that entrepreneurship is unpredictable, and that any attempt at a recipe will fall down with the first encounter with the real world, said Dr Marks.

Another starting idea for the programme was the belief that entrepreneurship could be taught, as both a science and an art, and that it needs to include inputs from both those disciplines.

Dr Jonathan Marks, Senior Lecturer at the University of Pretoria's Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).

So the focus is on design-based learning, in order to:

  • create as much learning as possible in a real world setting;
  • use a spread of teaching methods – including active theorical learning such as a case study discussion in class, reflective applied such as a consulting project, and active applied where students take the learning and build something meaningful to them; and to
  • move students from being passive consumers of content to become active co-creators of knowledge, which has been the most difficult because it's not what they are used to.

How they chose students for the entrepreneurship-MBA

Dr Marks said he is essentially looking for attitude, motivation and commitment. He is far less interested in the nature of the student's business idea or aspirations as an entrepreneur. It is all about their sense of commitment.

How the entrepreneurship-MBA is structured

Once they have been selected, they do core courses with the other MBA students. Then a separate set of elective courses, and a global module where groups visit either Israel or Chile to expose them to a much broader entrepreneurial ecosystem and help them build global networks.

A summative portfolio, a project completed at the end, replaces the traditional research report. This portfolio aims to show what a student can achieve and do, not only in the given time, but what they can take into the world and start a business.

Why entrepreneurial finance is such a popular elective

The entrepreneurial-MBA's choice of electives have been selected as the best areas to engage with the ecosystem. The entrepreneurial finance elective, for which investors have developed and delivered some of the content, has almost doubled its intake from last year. "I think the great advantage here is that it becomes profoundly relevant to students when they can hear about what a term sheet is (a document of proposed terms and conditions) from an actual investor who uses this technology," said Dr Marks.

They also run a project with an angel investing group, that is, live investment deals that students run a due diligence as part of their assessment. The course also includes pitching to investors. Overall, it links theory to practice in real time in the classroom.

One of the lessons learnt from developing the entrepreneurial-MBA

Dr Marks said he has remained very close to students throughout the programme, meeting with them every single week. This helps him understand what they need, which he believes relates to being close to customers in an entrepreneurial environment.

The 30-year-old quote that should guide all business schools

Dr Marks concluded with what professors Gerhard Plaschka and Harold Welsch of DePaul University in the US said in 1990:

"As the criticisms of business education show, current analytical functional quantitative, tool-orientated, theoretical, left-side of the brain, overspecialised, compartmentalised, approaches are not adequate to begin solving ill-defined, unstructured, ambiguous, complex multidisciplinary, holistic, real world problems".

Dr Marks said the world has become more complex and unstructured, and business schools should be looking for mechanisms that allow them to educate students in this way. "I'm convinced that this entrepreneurship programme and its links between the school and the outside world, creating these porous boundaries, is really what helps to create that relevance," he said.

What the virtual audience wanted to know

Question from Simon Gifford, UCT MBA graduate and now adjunct professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain: "How do we adapt an MIT-based approach to entrepreneurship in an African context? The book recently released by Edward Roberts, celebrating entrepreneurs, gives some great ideas, but not all are directly applicable to SA."

Answer from Dr Marks: "The beginning point is to not try and adopt a program from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and think about how that works here. You cannot adopt wholesale any programme from anywhere in the world. Take ideas, but you've got to build something that's very much homegrown. But there are probably some great learnings that one could strip out of programmes anywhere in the world. And then the best beginning point is to gather a group of students together and say, 'What do you need? What's going to be meaningful for you as an entrepreneur?' ".

Question from Anthony Hill, industrial psychologist and company director: ''Is there also a core course in finance?"

Answer: "Entrepreneurial finance is an elective focused on how to raise capital and how to deal with investors, how to build economic logic around your finances, projecting them forward for a business that has no revenues yet. There is also a core course in finance."

Question from Nambiar: "We work with young people on the entrepreneurial mindset in the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation. What is the balance in your programme between the entrepreneurial mindset and nurturing that, versus the actual business management side of it?"

Answer: "You have done incredible work around mindset, about understanding the thinking of an entrepreneur, in many ways leading the pack in South Africa for understanding of it. I tried this year to begin to build that mindset and internal capability. Students are getting between 70 and 80 hours of input around that. So it's substantial, a 45 minute zoom call every week since March. I've assumed that a lot of the skill to start a business is quite easy to adopt and we can find that in so many places. But building the capacity and mindset is my focus here."

The 4th annual EDHE Lekgotla, a flagship project of Universities South Africa (USAf), attracted up to 1221 delegates from around the world.

The author, Gillian Anstey, is an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa

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