And by the way, we’ll teach them to be enterprising

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Today, I’ve been attending and presenting at the Advance HE Employability Symposium, 3Es for Wicked Problems. Several speakers have talked about challenges of engagement with enterprise, and misunderstandings of this term as having a focus solely on business. These discussions reminded me of the following opening provocation I presented as part of the plenary debate: ‘We need to stop using the ‘E’ words (enterprise and entrepreneurship) with our students’ at the International Entrepreneurship Educators’ Conference 2017. Today’s conference shows it’s as relevant and important today as it was almost four years ago…

What is a word? From the early days of linguistics, Saussure (1959) identified that words are signs: they map a particular written representation or spoken sound (‘signifier’) to a meaning in the mind of the listener (‘signified’). This relationship breaks down for us as enterprise educators when we use the words ‘enterprise’ and ‘entrepreneurship’. Our audiences relate those terms to business and start-up, and so define them much more narrowly than we would as enterprise educators. As a result, they rightly challenge the relevance of our offer when most students don’t want to start their own venture.

To overcome this challenge, we need to step back. Linguistic signs need to form a meaningful message in the mind of our audience. So, our real challenge is to ensure that our audiences get our intended meaning.

Thus far, enterprise educators have tackled this challenge by trying to re-educate audiences to appreciate the broader meanings of ‘enterprise’ and ‘entrepreneurship’, as they are defined by the QAA. But it’s not working. At least, it’s not working quickly enough. It’s time we recognised that these terms are occupational language, understood by us as enterprise education professionals, but not by a broader audience. It’s time we practised what we preach, and package our offer as a solution to the challenges our academics and students face. In short, it’s time we took a new approach.

You may be familiar with Simon Sinek’s work, Start With Why, made famous by his TED talk entitled ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action’. His suggestion is that successful communicators start by getting people bought into their cause or belief. Let’s think about that. Why do we want to deliver enterprise and entrepreneurship education within our institutions in the first place? The answer is that we want to create students and graduates who are able to get things done and make things happen; individuals who can apply their skills and knowledge creatively, and have the ambition to be agents for positive action and change.

Communicating that ‘why’ means we align much more closely with the aspirations of academics and students. You can’t be a researcher without being enterprising. So if our academics want to deliver research-led learning experiences for students, let’s help them do that. And by the way, we’ll help students become enterprising. Our students are attracted to the idea of making a difference, of doing something worthwhile whilst they’re studying. Let’s help them do that through setting up authentic projects, that engage them with real-world problems, external partners and communities. And by the way, we’ll help them become enterprising. Our students want to engage in extra-curricular activities, as volunteers, members and leaders of societies. Let’s help them do that, and support them with the difficulties they face. And by the way, we’ll help them become enterprising.

We need to ask ourselves what the problem is that we’re trying to solve. Is it that academics and students don’t understand the words enterprise and entrepreneurship? Or is it that we want students and graduates – indeed, colleagues – with the characteristic of being enterprising? Of course, it’s the latter, but in fighting for our ‘enterprise’ name we’ve lost sight of that. If we can create ambitious, creative, can-do graduates, who cares if they list enterprise among their capabilities? Employers don’t use that term. Academics don’t like it. Students don’t understand it. It works for nobody but us.


Saussure, F. de (1959) Course in General Linguistics. The Philosophical Library, New York City.

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