Using biography to teach entrepreneurship.INTRODUCTION
Despite the continued debate about whether entrepreneurs are made or born, there is a continued rise in undergraduate entrepreneurship programs (Finkle, Kuratko, and Goldsby 2004; Honig 2004). Accordingly, an emerging question is how to best teach entrepreneurship. In one review of the research in this area by Bechard and Gregorie (2006:22) it was noted that "A whole corpus of research literature has been developing at the interface of entrepreneurship and education (cf. Greene et al., 2004). This research has been reviewed--and criticized--before." Bechard and Gregorie's (2006) approach to reviewing the literature of entrepreneurship education is distinct from other reviews because of their approach to the analysis. They integrate a framework from education pedagogy into the analysis of the articles they highlighted, addressing not only where the gaps were in the research, but also areas for enhancing the classroom. Specifically, they describe how the "socio-cognitive", "psycho-cognitive" and "ethical" dimensions are under-addressed in the literature of entrepreneurship education which is probably a reflection of the fact that they are not addressed as much in the practice of teaching entrepreneurship. For example, the authors note, "it means that what we know about counterfactual thinking--that is, the extent and kind of regrets that individuals may have about their education or career decisions (cf. Baron, 2000; Markman et al., 2002)--has found few echoes in how entrepreneurship educators approach the teaching of entrepreneurship" (Bechard and Gregorie 2005: 36). This points to the need for new directions that bring these and other aspects into the entrepreneurship classroom.
With few notable exceptions (e.g. Honig 2004), innovative approaches to teaching entrepreneurship have not been well-documented in the literature of entrepreneurship. In this paper, we describe the use of biographies in the entrepreneurship classroom as an approach that addresses some of the shortcomings inherent in the normative approach to entrepreneurship education. We begin by describing the use of biographies in other fields and then present how biographies are used in a unique entrepreneurship course in a four-year university program. Implications and conclusions are presented at the close of this paper.
THE USE OF BIOGRAPHIES
While biographies are not a common tool in either entrepreneurship programs or in business schools generally, there is precedent for the successful use of biographies as a teaching tool. Leckie (2006) argues:
(Biographies) are superb teachers' aids because as members of humankind we do not simply live out the life of our species. Instead, we display a variety of native abilities, and our personalities are shaped by our consciousness of our gender and race, environmental influences, and the choices we make.
Leckie writes from the perspective of a history professor, yet many of the lessons that she noted in her use of biographies translate well across disciplinary lines. Biographies help deconstruct some of the myths around seminal figures. Biographies enable students become more aware of the social conditions that either facilitated or inhibited their actions. Biographies challenge some of the students' preconceived notions about the appropriate paths to success. This is helpful not only for history students but for entrepreneurship students as well. Leckie (2006) continues, "As our globe becomes smaller and our communities more diverse, biography, which breathes life into dry census data and puts faces on demographic tables, will become the means by which new groups will weave their stories into our national fabric."
Similarly, Nielsen (2009) in her work teaching disability history, argues, "Teachers can take advantage of biography's special appeal to teach students about the interplay between individuals and structural forces in history. Through biography, they discover how individuals both shape, and are shaped by the world around them." Her work focused on the ability of biographies to teach students about the complexities in the world. Biographies enable the teacher to address institutional factors and to place a given topic within a broader context while demonstrating that no one, even the technology start-up, operates in isolation from "social institutions and movements."
Fairweather and Fairweather (2010) used the biographies of famous scientists to help teach middle school students the scientific method. Utilizing a wide variety of biographies that focused primarily on the work of the scientist, students were exposed to some of the personal traits that influenced scientific discovery. The biographies were arranged to coincide with various stages of the process of scientific inquiry. Students were found to have a heightened appreciation of the journey to a scientific breakthrough. They gained a more realistic understanding of what it means to be a scientist and learned the significance of developing social skills.
At the collegiate level, Mori and Lawson (2006) also used biographies to teach science. Their course, "Life of a Psychologist: Experiences of Women in Science" sought "to expose students to research in major areas of psychology" and "to present students with the many facets of being a scientist, with emphasis on the particular challenges experienced by women in science." The course, which was primarily completed by juniors and seniors, highlighted the interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics of science. Topics related to interpersonal dynamics included mentorship, collaboration and balancing professional and personal lives. Topics related to intrapersonal dynamics included defining an identity, achieving success and having a voice.
In a field that often draws comparisons to entrepreneurship around the question of pedagogical suitability: leadership, Fagan, Bromley and Welch (1994) reported on a four-year project teaching a "Profiles in Leadership" course where students read and discussed the biographies of seminal leaders. The authors provided several motivations for the use of biographies, many of which should resonate in an entrepreneurship context. First, a diverse set of leaders, across multiple disciplines was selected to provide the students "a microcosm of a liberal arts education" and to expand their "the multicultural sensitivity." In addition, the authors argue, "getting away from textbooks sharpens critical thinking, because textbooks 'spoonfeed' students by highlighting and summarizing the material." Among the reported lessons learned include the acknowledgement that "leaders sometimes fail and that success often follows failure", "leadership is both social and solitary", "leadership requires hard work and sacrifice (often at the expense of one's family and friends)" and that women and minorities face special challenges in leading. Again, these are all lessons applicable to the aspiring entrepreneur. In the following sections, we first describe an experimental course offered at the first author's institution. Then, using data provided by student assignments, we articulate some of the key lessons learned from the course.
OVERVIEW OF THE COURSE
This course was offered in consecutive years to senior entrepreneurship majors. The students had already completed an introduction to entrepreneurship course, a business plan course, and a corporate entrepreneurship (intrapreneurship) course. The course description included the following:
It can be argued that there is no force more distinctly American than the entrepreneurial spirit. While there is a growing cadre of young entrepreneurs such as Larry Page and Segrey Brin of Google who are changing the way we live our daily lives; there are countless entrepreneurs whose visions and dreams have changed the course of history. This course introduces you to a few of these visionary entrepreneurs. As we read and discuss their stories, we will share in their joys and pains, victories and defeats, mountain top highs and valley lows. In this course, you will not prepare a marketing plan, nor will you develop pro forma statements. Instead, you will be exposed to the myriad of nontechnical success factors for any entrepreneur--irrespective of your entrepreneurial setting, be it within an established firm (as a corporate entrepreneur), in the public sector (as a social entrepreneur) or in your own start-up.
The course is built around a number of core objectives. By the end of the semester, you should be able to:
* Recognize and explain the unique personal characteristics of the focal entrepreneurs which enabled them to launch and sustain their ventures;
* Draw analogies from the lives of the focal entrepreneurs and your own life;
* Articulate lessons learned from each entrepreneur and describe how you will integrate those lessons into your future ventures;
* Lead a group in an analytical discussion of a selected text;
Each week, a different student was required to lead the discussion. The discussion leader was responsible for developing a set of focal questions that would motivate the conversation. In addition, all of the students were required to compile a journal where each week they would articulate the lessons learned from the readings, as well as an analysis of how the entrepreneur negotiated his or her environment and how they will act or think differently as an entrepreneur as a result of the readings.
The following biographies were chosen for the course:
* Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire and Utopian Dreams, Michael D'Antonio
* Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built, Richard S. Tedlow
* "Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?'": How Reginald Lewis Created a Billion-Dollar Business Empire, Reginald Lewis and Blair Walker
* Success Never Smelled So Sweet: How I Followed My Nose and Found My Passion, Lisa Price and Hillary Beard
* Business as Unusual, Anita Roddick
This reading list was designed to expose the students to a variety of social and institutional environments. There are ethnic minorities (Lisa Price and Reginald Lewis) as well as two women entrepreneurs (Price and Anita Roddick). There are smaller, emerging enterprises (Price) as well as Fortune 500 companies (Tedlow's Giants of Enterprise). There are businesses that were founded within the past 50 years (Price, Roddick, the Sam Walton chapter in Tedlow's Giants) as well as businesses that are more than a century old (Hershey, multiple chapters in Tedlow's Giants). There is geographic diversity with an entrepreneur local to the first author's institution (Price), a European-based entrepreneur (Roddick), as well as entrepreneurs from multiple locales across the United States. The biographies also differed in length ranging from D'Antonio's Hershey, which is well over 300 pages to "mini-biographies" that comprise Tedlow's Giants of Enterprise.
Non-technical skill awareness
In many respects, the course accomplished its purpose of complimenting students' technical expertise with a heightened awareness of the myriad of non-technical issues associated with opportunity recognition and exploitation. Entrepreneurs must recognize that success is anything but guaranteed and maintain an extraordinary amount of internal confidence and motivation. Having read the story of Reginald Lewis, the first African American to build a billion dollar company, a student wrote:
I think the most important lesson in this section of his story has to do with his never-ending motivation. Reginald Lewis was not always successful. He suffered some disheartening events when a few of his deals did not go through, but no matter what, Lewis never gave up. There was absolutely no stopping him ... I think this is an extremely valuable lesson for an entrepreneur. Failure is something that most entrepreneurs have to experience before they gain success ... Entrepreneurs, who are often very passionate, have to follow this passion and keep trying until success is reached.
This theme of self-confidence continued across many of the biographies. Reflecting on the autobiography of Lisa Price, a student wrote, "I never really looked at the connection between self-confidence and successful entrepreneurs, but I now see that there is a very strong connection. Self-confidence allows a person to venture out on his own in pursuit of success." Finally, another student, reflecting on a different biography stated:
Revson trusted himself. I think that is the most important role as an entrepreneur. From that trust of oneself, the rest will fall into place. When fear comes, obstacles get in one's way, or decisions need to be made, it is vital to trust yourself to handle these things in the best way. Most of all, to trust yourself is to trust your vision and that is what (will) lead to the ultimate success.
Students often used the language of vision. For example, one student noted:
So far in this reading Hershey has inspired me to understand having a vision and most of all understanding failure leads to success. It inspired me to see that with all his failures he still remained light-hearted about them, and still pushed towards his vision. He is a great example of seeing an entire project through until the end. I believe that a lot of people fail because their vision is not detailed enough. It is not only about seeing the successes but also seeing the obstacles before they come and having a strategy to overcome them.
The concept of developing social capital and social networks is often presented in entrepreneurship courses. Having completed the mini-biography on Kodak's founder, George Eastman, a student realized, "Many lessons can be learned from the assigned readings but one main lesson is to build strong relationships with powerful people. This was a difference between Eastman and many other entrepreneurs." Another student commented, "As a result of the reading I think I will be more interested in the connections that I make and the people that I come into contact with." Several students echoed this theme.
The theme of work-life balance is becoming increasingly prominent in the management and entrepreneurship literatures. Not surprisingly, then, several students addressed this issue as a critical theme across the biographies. For example, one student wrote:
Although a strong work ethic is extremely important as an entrepreneur, it is also important to learn when to take breaks from the business. Milton Hershey devoted much of his time towards his work ... It is important to take breaks in order to live life and remember exactly why you are working so hard.
Another student reflected:
Lastly, there is one thing that I certainly would have done differently from Reginald Lewis. Most importantly, I would have spent more time with my family ... Although he shared many great memories with his children and wife, there are other important moments that he missed because he was too busy and too wrapped up in his business ... I believe that family is extremely important and I also believe that it is necessary to take a little break from work every once in a while.
Lastly, another student wrote, "I can learn from this reading never to let your business take over to the point where it controls your mind."
Students recognized the imprecision of the entrepreneurial journey and the diversity of entrepreneurs profiled in the biographical readings only reinforced their view that they could successfully launch a business. One student noted:
I learned that it is okay to be unconventional. There is no specific right or wrong way to find one's path in becoming an entrepreneur. It is not science; it is mostly passion and using one's natural skill set.
Similarly, another student observed:
The main lesson I learned ... was that there is no exact formula when becoming an entrepreneur. Many different people have different strategies and methods that work for them. I think the key is ... to understand your strengths and weaknesses and cater your business techniques to those qualities. There is no exact formula because many different entrepreneurs have started their businesses with totally different methods.
A different student, reflecting on a different biography, arrived at a similar conclusion.
The most important lesson that this book taught me was that someone does not have to be born with an entrepreneurial and innovative mind. Entrepreneurship can be discovered from your own hobbies and talents. It's what you make out of the gifts that are given to you and Lisa did exactly that. For this, she is a true example of the word, entrepreneur.
Finally, the concept of resilience resonated through the course and across the selected
biographies. A student noted:
A lesson I have learned from the readings was never give up. It is difficult to pick yourself back up from a business venture that leads you to failures. It is difficult to accept the fact that people will now see you as a failure because of the failed idea. It will be embarrassing to attempt to regain trust (from) investors and banks when you ask for their help and money again when they know you have failed before ... If a person can pick themselves up and truly believe that they can still accomplish great things after continual failures, they are unstoppable.
Traditional skill reinforcement
In addition, to non-technical skill acquisition, the use of biographies demonstrated the reinforcement of some of the more traditional, standard business skills that are often taught in entrepreneurship and business courses. Students often reflected on the variety of marketing issues that emerged from the biographies. In discussing Anita Roddick's autobiography, a student noted, "The first thing I gained from it was that when entering a new market to be sure to thoroughly research it." He continued, "Anita Roddick fails to do this when entering the American market and it is this lack of research that causes the Body Shop to initially take a hit before bouncing back." Another student reflected on Roddick's work stating, "Some of the best lessons that I learned from this reading is to follow my instincts and always listen to customers." One additional student also reflected on marketing concerns after completing the mini-biography on Revlon's founder, Charles Revson. She wrote:
As a result of Revson's marketing campaigns, I will definitely approach the marketing of my product much differently. Instead of simply focusing on advertising, I will certainly focus on creating a need for my product. In addition, the product must evolve so that the need for a new product is always present.
Students connected the biographies to their training in strategic management. One student noted:
Sam Walton and his Wal-Mart stores taught a different lesson. In my opinion, the most valuable lesson that his story taught was the importance of staying consistent to your strategy. Walton decided that he wanted his stores to be ... low cost ... Therefore, every single aspect of his company went along with this strategy. He did everything in his power to cut costs and minimize spending. All of his policies were consistent and he never strayed from his ultimate goal ... Sam Walton showed that a low cost strategy is a lot more detailed than simply lowering the prices of the products.
Entrepreneurship students are often taught about external forces and environmental analysis through tools such as SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). However, biographies are a rich source of data about how factors and forces surrounding the individual have a major impact on the business. Consider the thoughts of this student:
One of the most surprising things that I have found from the novel Hershey, by Michael D'Antonio, was how much the forces outside of your business can influence the way business is run from within. For example, the state of the country's economy had an enormous impact on the company and the town of Hershey ... After the Great Depression, Milton also saw the effects of world economics on his business during the fluctuations of cocoa beans.
Students also connected the biographies to concepts such as succession and harvesting the venture. At the conclusion of the Hershey biography, a student wrote:
However, what (Hershey) failed to enact was an exit strategy. He failed to envision the time that would lead to his departure from the organization, his possible death, or the recruitment of a qualified successor. Every entrepreneur understands that they must first conduct the necessary research, establish their business model, and plan the events that will lead towards the success of their business. (Hershey's) situation depicted the importance of an exit strategy, and the implications that may occur with the lack of one.
Human Resources concepts also were supported by the biographies. One student noted, "Some of the lessons that I learned as a result of reading this book was that it is okay to always expected and demand the best from people." Another student reflecting on a different biography wrote, "It was very disappointing to see how (Revson) treated his management staff."
Lastly, the concepts of change management and innovation were reinforced throughout the readings. One student wrote:
In my opinion, the most important message that was given was about change. Anita, after almost failing in the United States, decides that it is time for her to change a little bit or else she will never be able to survive. The ability to realize that change is necessary and then to implement this change is absolutely crucial to a business.
Another student, reflecting on a different biography added:
I think new ideas and new visions are extremely important. You have to stay current with the trends in the market if you want people to be interested in your company. There must always be some excitement in the company and things must change. I believe that a willingness to change as an entrepreneur is a beneficial characteristic and would help you to run a successful company.
As with any tool or technique, there are limitations to using biographies in the entrepreneurship classroom. Mori and Larson (2006) rightly note that, "One concern about using biographical materials is that information contained in these materials could be generalized when it is not appropriate to do so or discredited as a single person's issue when it is a more general phenomenon." Fagan, et al. (1994) expressed concerns about the subjectivity of biographies and the logistical challenges to navigating the length of biographies. These concerns are well noted. In addition, our students emerge from a social media world driven by exchanges of less than 100 characters.
However, these limitations notwithstanding, a biographies course can provide a useful addition to an entrepreneurship curriculum. The course may be used as a senior level course to reinforce concepts and provide unique contexts. A course may also be used earlier in the curriculum to help the students better navigate the entrepreneurial journey. By requiring written analyses of each biography, the students' writing skills were sharpened. Through leading the small group discussions, students increased their presentation skills and critical thinking skills. Many students commented on how influenced they were by each entrepreneur and how each challenged some of their preconceived notions.
In addition, diversifying our pedagogical approaches enables the instructor to meet the needs of a diverse set of students who enter the classroom with different learning styles and learning needs. Moving away from or complimenting traditional entrepreneurship textbooks will only enhance the learning experience.
Bechard, JP and Gregorie, D. 2005. Entrepreneurship Education Revisited: The Case of Higher Education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4:22-43.
Fagan, M., Bromley, K. and Welch, J. 1994. Using biographies to Teach Leadership. The Journal of Leadership Studies, 1(4): 123-134.
Fairweather, E. and Fairweather, T. 2010. A Method for Understanding Their Method: Discovering Scientific Inquiry Through Biographies of Famous Scientists. Science Scope, Summer 2010: 23-30.
Finkle, T., Kuratko, D., and Goldsby, M. 2006. An examination of entrepreneurship centers in the United States: A national survey. Journal of Small Business Management 44:184-206.
Greene, P. G., Katz, J. A., & Johannisson, B. 2004. Introduction to special issue on entrepreneurship education. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 3(3): 238-241.
Honig, B. 2004. Entrepreneurship Education: Toward a model of contingency-based business planning. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 3:258-273.
Leckie, S.A. 2006. Why Biographies Matter in the Classroom. OAH Magazine of History, January 2006:7-10.
Mori, M. and Lawson, S. 2006. Using Biographies to Illustrate the Interpersonal and Interpersonal Dynamics of Science. The Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 5(1): A1-A5.
Nielsen, K.E. 2009. Using Biography to Teach Disability History. OAH Magazine of History, July 2009:41-43.
Richard N. Hayes, Hofstra University
Jeffrey A. Robinson, Rutgers Business School