“Entrepreneurship. What does that mean? And can you teach it?” asks Darek Mazzone, a creative consultant at Microsoft Innovation Centers.
We often see skills like entrepreneurship or creativity as innate, unteachable traits. But there are concrete skills and steps that can help someone start a company, and a new program from the Microsoft Innovation Centers (MIC) hopes to teach those skills to aspiring entrepreneurs across the globe, through the more than 100 existing MIC locations.
The program consists of a four-day workshop designed to provide a scaffold for aspiring entrepreneurs to develop an idea, conduct customer research, and leave with a roadmap to turn their idea into a startup.
The project is led by Ed Steidl, who joined Microsoft Innovation Centers as global program manager in 2014. For the past year, he has been working with a variety of collaborators to develop a curriculum and teaching tools for the program, and said he anticipates the program will launch early next year.
When Steidl first arrived at the MIC, its programs were largely focused on teaching technology skills so that students could get positions in the tech sector. But he quickly realized something was lacking. As he traveled the world, speaking to students in the program, Steidl saw the same pattern reappearing.
One instance took place at a conference in Nepal.
“A student came up to me at the end and he said, “Hey, I don’t want to go and get a job, I want to create jobs. Is there anything you can do to help me do that?'” Steidl said.
“I reflected on that, and a month-and-a-half later I was in China giving a talk to a group of university students, and somebody raised their hand and through the translator he asked, ‘Is there anything you can do to help me become like Steve Jobs?'” Steidl said.
He realized the students in the program didn’t just want to know how to code. They wanted to know how to use those skills to build companies that addressed local challenges, ones that Western startups would never think to take on.
“We live in this world where I go to an ATM, I have no problem. Stuff is working. The power is on all the time,” said Darek Mazzone, a creative consultant who has been collaborating with Steidl to build the entrepreneurship program.
But in many of the countries where MIC locations operate, like Pakistan, China or Botswana, there are completely unique political and infrastructure challenges that entrepreneurs want to tackle, he said.
“We need solutions that solve for bovine mortality in Botswana, or increasing rice production in Thailand, or teaching people how to code using their phone in Armenia,” Steidl said, all real examples from the program’s pilot workshops.
“Some of the solutions that are coming from this mix are really interesting, and they could scale globally, but they would never come from the West because the West doesn’t think like that,” Mazzone said.
The workshops themselves consist of two parts: a one-day Invention Cycle Workshop developed with Stanford professor Tina Seelig, which helps students come up with an idea; then an adaptation of the three-day Lean Startup Workshop that helps them develop the idea into an actionable plan.
As part of the Lean Startup Workshop, entrepreneurs must go into their community and talk to real customers, trying to understand what needs they have and how they can best be filled.
Over the three days, the entrepreneurs pivot, Steidl said. Their first idea doesn’t often survive, but their interactions with customers help them arrive at an idea that fills a real need.
Much of the benefit of the workshop is giving aspiring entrepreneurs a roadmap on how to get started, which Mazzone said can help entrepreneurs overcome cultural forces that may prevent them from attempting to start a company. In some cultures, just being an entrepreneur is a foreign concept, he said.
“With startups you fail, and some cultures have a real hard time with failure,” he said.
So far, Steidl and Mazzone have piloted the workshops in 34 countries, and have also held several sessions to train employees at MIC locations to lead the workshops themselves. When the program launches in about two months, Steidl said, these trainers will go on to host workshops in their own communities, and start a groundswell of local entrepreneurship around the world.
“I think people can learn how to do it,” Steidl said. “Not everybody’s going to do it, and that’s OK. But if you can move the needle just a little bit and give people a set of tools and frameworks that they can follow, they have the ability to be more creative and entrepreneurial.”
And, as Mazzone pointed out, strong startup ecosystems won’t just help entrepreneurs in rural Botswana or Urban China. When entrepreneurs are able to succeed, they accelerate innovation across the world.
“Anything that helps international cultures evolve is a plus for all of humanity,” he said.