How an Entrepreneurial Mindset is being Fostered to Transform Education

By Dr. Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan, Senior Fellow Academic Associates, Innovation Advisor And Serrano Legrand Jr., Educator, Innovation Consultant, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania, & Dr. Jenny Zapf, Director of Education Entrepreneurship & Senior Academic Fellow, University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan, Senior Fellow Academic Associates, Innovation Advisor

In recent years, interest has peaked in understanding and cultivating a person’s “mindset”.  Industry leaders, educators and entrepreneurs alike have begun using the term in order to examine the mental  models for how one views the world. Researchers in the field of business and management have developed the concept of an “entrepreneurial mindset” (EM) as a way to further identify the characteristics and attributes that drive successful innovation and creation. While most of this work is seen (and siloed) in business courses, we see this as an integral part of how to develop the next generation of leaders who will transform education.

A team led by Dr. Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan and Dr. Jenny Zapf at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education began work on transforming education through developing leaders’ entrepreneurial mindset in 2013 when they launched the world’s first Master’s degree in Education Entrepreneurship. Now in its fifth year, the program has trained and graduated several hundred people addressing  innovation in education globally- in twenty-five countries across classrooms, schools, government, education-related product and service organizations and education technology companies.

Entrepreneurial Mindset (EM) in Education

EM is defined as the ways in which a person can see and view opportunity in an environment that is both unfamiliar and uncertain. This mindset is comprised of core attributes (such as personality traits and skills) that can be described and measured, as well as meta-cognitive attributes that are less visible but that serve as higher-order thinking strategies to enable a person to handle such uncertainty.

"We view our programs and our EM research as the basis for an evolution of the edtech entrepreneurial ecosystem"

In an ongoing study being conducted by our research team at UPenn’s Graduate School of Education, education entrepreneurs - school founders, ed-tech tool and product developers and service providers - were interviewed about the ways their EM is leveraged in education. Our findings suggest that despite being in a niche field, education entrepreneurs are not a monolithic group. In our efforts to explore the “entrepreneurial mindset” for entrepreneurs working in P-20 education, we are learning that there is no singular account or narrative for how education entrepreneurs make sense of their environment and use information to guide decision-making and action. While some of the entrepreneurs we speak with have a clear social mission and place a high premium on using their ventures to promote equity and social justice, (such as actively addressing  systems that reproduce wealth and inequality), others make no such explicit connections in their interviews.

As the climate for education transformation continues to change and bring uncertainty, and the demographics of our students and communities grow in their diversity and uniqueness, our research suggests that it is critical to understand how leaders explore and leverage their EM.  This includes those operating within and outside of traditional education institutions and how their individual entrepreneurial mindset impacts their responses to the environmental challenges with new and creative solutions.

Serrano Legrand Jr., Educator, Innovation Consultant, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania, & Dr. Jenny Zapf, Director of Education Entrepreneurship & Senior Academic Fellow, University of Pennsylvania

So how do you foster this EM in Education?

Taking research and practice together, developing an educator’s EM requires the fusion of rigorous content from education, business, design and entrepreneurship as well as access to experiences, skills and tools. Through research-informed practice, we accelerate an individual's propensities for innovation, proactivity and risk.

During “demo days,'' for example, master’s degree students pitch new ventures to panels of esteemed judges,  offering an array of solutions to education problems around the world. Leading up to this point, they spend countless hours field-testing their ideas, gathering competitive intelligence and fine-tuning their business models. This dedicated space and time for imagining new models and conducting research are significant levers for developing more thoughtful idea generators (innovativeness), better anticipators of uncertainty (proactivity) and better calculators in their risk-taking.

Other supplemental programs we design to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset include education design studios; a global business plan competition; school innovation labs; entrepreneurship bootcamps,; and a new education innovation certificate. While we certainly believe in the promise of these initiatives, these are not the only ways to develop an individual’s EM in education. We have learned the importance of flexibly architecting new entrepreneurial programs, products and services that respond to the changing education landscape. These responses must be continually tested and titrated to reflect the profound changes in global demographics, needs, technologies, and markets.

We know that statistically, more startups fail than succeed. But edtech failures are tinged with a special pain because of the significant costs—both in dollars and time—that individual educators and schools must invest to adopt and successfully try new technologies. One concern is that there are a lot of companies with a little money [and a little advice] but not enough to get to scale. We believe they need critical support—and we need to find other ways to provide it. There is a need for shorter education entrepreneurship programs that include learning sprints at faster and more efficient rates complemented with higher dosages of mentoring and consulting. These programs also need to bring in research and build it into the fabric of how companies and ideas are designed.  Our new entrepreneurial venture is a three to five day bootcamp with blended learning for education innovators that addresses the need for shorter and more intense programs.

We view our programs and our EM research as the basis for an evolution of the edtech entrepreneurial ecosystem. Through cultivating the entrepreneurial mindset of these various actors within and across education our hope is that these programs will help pave the way toward the kind of supportive environment that education technology companies and organizations need not only to launch, but also to create real impact, reach scale and achieve sustainability.

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