Business guru praises local scheme with global reach

7th December 2012 at 00:00
Gazelle Group's entrepreneurial programme gets boost from US

The president of an elite university for business leaders has said that the entrepreneurship movement in FE colleges in England could transform education on "a global scale".

Len Schlesinger, president of Babson College in the US, said that the Gazelle Group was "lighting fires all around the world". The group comprises 19 FE colleges committed to offering students real-world business experience as they learn.

Babson College, the alma mater of current and former chief executives at Toyota, PepsiCo and Accenture, is now offering a customised training programme to prepare staff at the colleges to create new entrepreneurial programmes.

"Quite honestly, from my perspective the principals who have started up the Gazelle Group have the capacity to change the nature and content of tertiary education on a global scale," Mr Schlesinger said.

Entrepreneurship is Babson College and the Gazelle Group's answer to an increasingly uncertain economy where large companies cannot be relied upon to create new jobs.

The colleges argue that equipping students to understand how to run a business in practical terms will make them better employees, and also prepare them for self-employment if jobs at large companies disappear.

"It's an incontrovertible fact in the UK and US that large companies have not produced one net job in the past 40 years. Not one," Mr Schlesinger said. "That smashes your mythological structure of how jobs get created."

Mr Schlesinger said Babson's research had demolished many myths about entrepreneurship: that it involves innovative ideas, passion, a good business plan and taking risks. He said this was the result of "hero-worship" of "mini versions of Donald Trump".

According to Mr Schlesinger, creating successful entrepreneurs means teaching people to refine an idea slightly, to experiment in a low-cost way and to minimise risk. "What I describe is almost boring. But in fact it's the way that most of these projects get done," he said.

"The folks at Gazelle can actually build environments where, by operating real businesses that are part of real communities, they can engage with each other in teams, with mentors who have experience in the category. They can provide a real service to the community, and get real feedback in real time."

At Gazelle Group colleges, this has meant establishing "learning companies" - businesses staffed and run by students who study for qualifications while selling services based on their vocational skills, from hairdressing to graphic design.

The initiative has prompted complaints from some small businesses that colleges are undercutting them in the marketplace. But Fintan Donohue, chief executive of the Gazelle Group, said the majority of businesses backed their approach.

"You just have to take a leap of faith," he said. "Our task is to create the employees that industry wants. We're pretty much convinced as a group that commerciality in learning is central to that. We're finding most of our employers locally understand the strength of this model."

Mr Donohue predicted a decline in business studies with the rise of entrepreneurship. "Business studies as we know it, which was largely teaching people about business rather than bringing them in to business, has had its day for many, many students. You can see the decline in many colleges already."

Mr Schlesinger, whose college enshrines its commitment to practical learning of entrepreneurship by giving students $3,000 (#163;1,860) of start-up capital, said it would be no great loss.

"Would you like to go to a doctor who got all As in their classroom education but never practised a day in their life? Or would you turn a business over to someone who has gone through a classroom and taken an exam but never had any of the concrete experiences?" he said.

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