Why an entrepreneurial mindset should be one of the most valuable components of a university education

Entrepreneurship, Pixabay

In light of our unemployment crisis and the dwindling traditional job opportunities, young South African graduates are often encouraged to ‘consider entrepreneurship as an alternative’. 

But how exactly do you convince and equip a young person to become a successful entrepreneur?

‘If life hands you lemons, make lemonade.’ 

This wise adage is normally used to encourage a positive attitude in trying circumstances. But it’s also an excellent metaphor to describe entrepreneurship. It effectively illustrates that one should look for opportunities within obstacles, and where possible, turn that very obstacle into a marketable commodity – one that effectively fills a need in your community, which could ultimately lead to a viable, sustainable source of income for you.

The challenges in the world of work

The ‘lemons’ that young graduates nowadays have to deal with, are abundant. They literally fall from the trees in the workplace orchards. Apart from a strained economy and an oversupply of job seekers, challenging changes have taken place in the world of work.

Large public corporations that were major employers a decade or two ago, are floundering or downsizing. In our current uncertain economic times, private-sector companies are often also hesitant to offer permanent employment, instead opting for temporary freelance contracts and outsourcing many of their non-core functions.  

Most individuals in the modern-day workforce will hold six or more jobs during their working lives. The traditional ladder model (vertical progression from job to job) is also being replaced by a newer lattice model (progression through a combination of sideways and vertical progressions) in a labour market that is more flexible, integrated, and networked.

Nowadays, workforces are also decidedly more diverse in terms of technical, management, and leadership skills, resulting in a ‘flattening out’ of work structures.

In this environment, it’s vital to make informed and creative decisions in order to carve out a career path that suits your particular skills set and interests. In most cases, a predetermined ‘corporate ladder’ simply doesn’t exist anymore. This is where an entrepreneurial mindset becomes a crucial commodity.

The 2015 Global Entrepreneurial Monitor indicates that an economy in the same development stage as South Africa’s should have a Total Entrepreneurial Activity rate of at least 13%. Yet South Africa has a rate of only 3,9%. It’s abundantly clear that more needs to be done to stimulate entrepreneurial activity.

A new mindset needed

The first step towards a solution is to stop looking at our current workplace-employment characteristics (the ‘lemons’) as problems, but to rather see them as opportunities. The entrepreneurial way requires a positive and exciting shift in your approach to work: Not waiting for opportunity to knock, but finding opportunity yourself; not working for a boss (whom you may not always agree with), but rather aligning yourself with like-minded role players in your field; not being stuck in a dead-end job, but continually finding new ways of making a real difference and adding real value to your industry and the wider community you operate in.

This mindset is vital for survival in the job market. Which is why we’ve identified entrepreneurship as one of our key graduate attributes at the University of the Free State (UFS). 

Entrepreneurial approach across study fields

Like other higher-education institutions, the UFS has been incorporating aspects of entrepreneurship training in the formal curricula for many years.

However, we believe that entrepreneurial thinking is something that every student should be exposed to – not only those who are studying in the fields of business or economics. Therefore, during the past year – through an entrepreneurship value chain – the UFS has started to sensitise all first-year students to entrepreneurship in a foundation course (UFS 101), followed by a dedicated programme coordinated by our Career Services Office, especially for those students who showed further interest in entrepreneurship. This dedicated programme encompasses formal credit-bearing courses in our Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences and the Centre for Development Support, and short courses through our Business School, with proper advice and support from our Innovation Office. For example, the Centre for Business Dynamics in the Business School helps companies to stay competitive by bridging the gap between their existing skills and competencies and those they require.  The UFS has also launched a Student Business Incubator to provide practical impetus to students with business ideas. Through our Engaged Scholarship approach, the formal curriculum on entrepreneurship is enhanced through co-curriculum programmes, emphasising the concept and action of entrepreneurship for public good.

We are also involved with initiatives such as Young Entrepreneurs and we have a UFS chapter of Google’s Startup Grind U to further stimulate entrepreneurial thinking and provide the tools and know-how to take charge of your own work future.

Entrepreneurial Value Chain

It is important not to stop at simply identifying opportunities and developing viable business plans for them. Ideas should be taken all the way to become sustainable enterprises. Which is why we have developed an entrepreneurial value chain, driven by a diverse team of role players across the institution. 

With the entrepreneurial value-chain initiative, we are also reaching out to other institutions with similar objectives and tap into existing industries and opportunities in our region.

In essence, we don’t want entrepreneurs to only produce the lemonade and thereby satisfy an immediate need. We also want them to bottle it in the most appealing and cost-effective way possible, distribute it to areas where the thirst is greatest, and generate a sustainable lemonade enterprise that can ultimately create jobs. 

In this way we produce a cohort of employers, not job seekers. 

Entrepreneurship is ultimately about so much more than starting your own business.

It is about recognising opportunities in a vastly altered work environment and having the passion and confidence in your own skills to pursue it. 

Professor Francis Petersen is the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State in South Africa.