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Can you teach K-12 students to become entrepreneurs?

Quick: What’s the first name that comes to mind when I say: entrepreneur?

I’ll wait.

Got it?

For an overwhelming majority of us, an entrepreneur is a famous business person who probably has a very compelling story: starting very early, such as Bill Gates, or late like Colonel Sanders. They have reached rockstar status in one way or another. Scratch that, they are the heroes of today, who have become seemingly successful overnight. Many people aspire to be like them.

In spite of this collective understanding of entrepreneurship, being an entrepreneur is much more than that. Given the fact that we live in a gig economy, in which everyone seems to be side hustling, it’s hard not to notice that entrepreneurs are everywhere. This trend is on the rise, as 41 percent of Gen Z are planning to become entrepreneurs as a “response to macroeconomic forces”.

The school system as a whole has a problem on their hands: that’s a lot of people who intend to be freelancers or business owners in the not so distant future, yet we don’t teach them how to, at least not at a K-12 level.

This trend has not gone unnoticed. As a response, we have examples such as Lemonade Day, a program that teaches basic business skills as well as empowering all students to give back to their community. NFTE also guides young people in finding their entrepreneurial mindset and learning startup skills.

The entrepreneurial mindset

While these programs sound great, there’s still a lingering question that demands to be answered:

Can entrepreneurship be taught?

Entrepreneurs are creative thinkers and people that put ideas into action, solving real-world problems. Your students are the business owners or social entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

Redefining entrepreneurship means that thinking like an entrepreneur is not limited to the intention to own a business. The entrepreneurial mindset is a way of thinking that spills over into many areas of their lives. For example, even if 70% of your students end up working for a company, they’ll still be good at coming up with a solid business strategy or be competent problem solvers.

Read more: How to enhance students’ work-ready skills

Entrepreneurship can definitely be taught. It can benefit students who don’t have certain advantages such as an entrepreneurial education at home as well as those who do.

What does an entrepreneurial education program look like?

A good entrepreneurial education program teaches both how to think like an entrepreneur and the skills they need to become one. It’s also inclusive: students of all genders and abilities should be part of it. Finally, it should follow a model of increasing difficulty: as students progress through different school levels, so should their skills.

Here’s what schools should prioritize in terms of entrepreneurial education for K-12 students:

Building confidence and self-efficacy

It’s a fact that most startups fail. It’s also true that this aspect shouldn’t be the end of an individual’s entrepreneurial ambitions. Nor should it have an impact on their self-esteem or belief in themselves.

What students think about their own abilities matters more than the methods you use to teach. How many times have you heard: “I’m simply not good at this! I can’t do it”. Self-efficacy is a concept that describes a student’s perception of their abilities. Students that believe they are good at something also believe that they can improve their skills and will persist in pursuing their learning goals.

They have that sense of self-worth even when things get tough - they show resilience. The good part is that they can build their self-efficacy through learning more efficiently, feedback from teachers or peers, and achieving their goals, one step at a time.

Entrepreneurs have their moments of doubt but can also evaluate their skills appropriately, are willing to improve each day, and know when not to give up on a business idea. Most importantly, they know not to give up on themselves.

Facing uncertainty and calculated risk-taking

Oftentimes, the classroom is a high stakes environment in which mistakes are penalized and there's pressure to do well on standardized tests. As a consequence, students will tend to make an effort only when they know they can succeed. This translates as: what’s the safest approach to get a good grade?

Risk-taking is critical for innovation, skill development, and creative thinking. Many young people today get to adulthood without knowing how to take calculated risks and how to bounce back from failure. They won’t know how to evaluate their own abilities objectively (might over/underestimate them).

Entrepreneurs don’t see failure as the end of something - it can also be the beginning of something new. The school should be a safe environment for them to risk and see the lows and highs of bouncing back. Students can be encouraged to experiment more and yes, learn from their failures.

Teachers that admit their own mistakes, give students second chances and reward behaviors such as persevering with a task teach students an important lesson: you have to deal with the uncertainty of the future while believing that your hard work will pay off. Nothing is impossible as long as you learn from your mistakes and see them as an opportunity to do better next time.

Read more: How to motivate students for lifelong learning

Making room for more choice in education

Although we’re making choices every day, from what to wear to what to eat, how many people are actually good at making decisions? Entrepreneurs need to be creative as well as analyze the cost-benefit of opportunities. In other words, they’re master decision-makers.

Sure, they improve with years of experience, and studies have confirmed that nobody acts completely “rationally” when making a decision. However, they are able to make complex choices that affect everything from how much money to invest, how to proceed in difficult situations, distinguish between what works and doesn’t.

To actually get there, students have to make decisions in the first place. Think about it as any muscle: if you don’t use it, it won’t work to its full capacity. In the classroom, teachers can encourage students to make decisions by giving them more choices and encouraging them to take ownership of their own learning. The flipped and project-based learning are prime examples of student choice.

Read more: Giving students a V.O.I.C.E. in your classroom

Fostering a sense of community

Entrepreneurs are great at handling conflicts, teamwork, leadership, networking, and negotiation. Negotiation is perhaps the most used and the most important ability that they have. They understand that everything is an exchange, whether it’s an exchange of resources or information.

The so-called “people skills” is an umbrella term for a range of behaviors and attitudes that we have when we interact with others, both personally and professionally. The school environment helps shape students’ interpersonal skills by offering them the right context and the guidance to do so successfully.

Teachers can nurture these skills by building an environment in which title="Transforming our schools through empathy | K-20 Blog">empathy and communication come first. To freely expand their social interactions and learn from them, students should feel part of a community. Students should have plenty of opportunities to work in projects, assume leadership roles and learn how to successfully build good relationships with others.

Teaching that patience pays off in the end

It seems as if we’re always rushing from one thing to another, looking for the next best thing. In reality, entrepreneurs work for many years to get ahead. Another myth about entrepreneurs is that they’re impatient people who want things to be done now. Instead, they are good planners who see the big picture and work towards one goal for a sustained period of time. Work first, rewards and profits second.

So, the key term here is self-control. Self-control is the ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. People who regulate their emotions successfully usually get along with others, demonstrate less impulsive behavior and are able to wait for bigger rewards instead of pursuing short term and easy goals.

The best part is that your students can develop self-control over time. The school setting has an important role to play, as self-control is rapidly developing when students interact with each other and their teachers. It’s also a place to learn about self-discipline, how to tolerate frustration, and how not to give up even if they find a subject to be very difficult for them.

Opening up about financial literacy

Entrepreneurs are good with money and that’s non-negotiable. Aside from other resources such as time, entrepreneurs see money as “energy” that they can use to make their dreams come true. Most people learn about money at home, from their parents or other adults. But what happens to those who don’t?

As one in five 15-year-olds in the U.S. lack basic financial literacy, this is a very pressing issue. How are we to expect them to become entrepreneurs if they’re way behind in this area?

Schools should slowly start eliminating the taboo about money and money management. An ideal curriculum starts with budgeting and saving, moves on to investing and paying taxes, and finally discusses important subjects such as the relevance of peer pressure when it comes to our spending habits. Most importantly, they should be aware that their current circumstances don’t have to dictate their future.

Read more: Teaching students financial literacy with education technology

Teaching essential digital literacy skills

For younger generations, all the information they need is just one click or tap away. Gen Z has grown up with resources that other generations simply have not had access to such as e-learning. Being able to research, work with data, create effective presentations, and be in general a good digital user is crucial for any entrepreneur’s success.

More importantly, entrepreneurs have to keep up with innovation and are more likely to work as part of an online team. Online teams are so popular nowadays that most projects get done with freelancers coming together to work on them remotely.

Indeed, people could work together for years before actually meeting in person! They don’t have to wait until joining the workforce in order to learn how to collaborate with others online and offline.


As 2020 is just beginning, we at NEO are starting to think more about the future. And we can’t think about the future if we neglect to think about the younger generations and their preparedness for it.

Putting together a good entrepreneurial program means that all students can benefit from it. As it’s likely that more and more young people will choose the self-employed route, schools should also adapt to the new demand for entrepreneurial skills.