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University students must leave the classroom and work in startups to gain entrepreneurial experience

As manager of Student Entrepreneur Development at UNSW, I am often asked about the best way for students to learn ‘entrepreneurship.’

The answer, in my opinion, is by actually being an entrepreneur: by founding and running a startup in tandem with studying a degree, and actually encountering the same challenges, risks, and rewards as a real entrepreneur. If you’re a real entrepreneur, it’s not a simulation game inside a classroom, and the experience is very real and very different.

While entrepreneurship in the classroom is helpful training and a valuable feeder into “pre-accelerator” support and incubation services, it’s not effective at giving birth to startups. It’s valuable (and fun) to study Steve Blank and lean startup methodology and to learn about the startups in your city and how that ecosystem compares to Silicon Valley and Israel. You might even earn credit by interning at a real startup. But learning these things and gaining course credit towards a degree isn’t a sufficient motivator for students to do a startup properly, and when projects are started team members rarely commit their full effort beyond that semester.

Although the study of entrepreneurship – and innovation more broadly – benefits potential entrepreneurs, it doesn’t compare with the lessons learned by actually running your own startup company. Undoubtedly, running a startup is more responsibility for a student, who may already have exams, assignments and part-time jobs on their plate, but the potential rewards are in another league. Even if the financial rewards of entrepreneurship never materialise, the practical skills that come from engaging in entrepreneurship are tremendously useful to students in all walks of life, and very much desired by employers.

In 2012, together with local tech entrepreneur Bart Jellema, the UNSW Startup Games were born. As opposed to gaining course credit, students opt-in because they want to develop themselves as entrepreneurs. Unlike an accelerator program where existing teams with business ideas pitch to gain entry to the program, the Games takes a step back and asks students to pitch themselves as individuals that would be valuable to a potential startup team. Based on these pitches, teams are formed and these teams develop and pilot test their ideas over 8 full day sessions on weekends.

Although some first-time competitors emerge with promising startups, we also see students who come back with different concepts and teams and eventually see success the second or third time around. When we compare these individuals and teams to those who have come strictly from for-credit entrepreneur programs, our cohorts are generally stronger and more motivated, and therefore more willing to persevere.

An example can be found in UNSW Business School undergraduate student Pasha Ryan. Although with a different team during the UNSW Startup Games program, he has since gone through the lean startup approach, learning by doing with two more business concepts. Each of those startups saw him and his co-founder Gareth Pan through to the second stage in the application process for the external accelerator programs StartMate and Venturetec Accelerator.

While undergraduate students generally make up the majority of participants, postgraduate students also participate in the games – most of them would not have had access to entrepreneurship training within their programs. For example, Peter Slattery, an Information Systems PhD student, was one of the UNSW students who co-founded Collaboreat – described as “Airbnb for food”, it’s a business linked to his PhD research on the use of “persuasive technology’ to encourage socially beneficial behaviour. Similarly, Photovoltaic PhD candidate Hua Fan secured NSW Trade & Investment grants, seed funding, and a corporate customer for his social media startup meetisan.com. In addition, medical PhD graduate Hassan Ahmad launched his social enterprise startup Conscious Step, an e-commerce platform that redirects profits to charities. Collaboreat, Meetisan.com, and Conscious Step were all involved in the UNSW Startup Games in 2012.

In summary, having compared the success of the UNSW Startup Games Program to the entrepreneurship in the classroom approach that preceded it, I have no doubt that entrepreneurship through doing is a much more effective approach. As students actually do real rather than simulated entrepreneurship, they also gain real world experience and skills which all employers desire. Even if their startup fails, what they learn is never forgotten.

Applications for the 2015 UNSW Startup Games are now open.

This article was co-written by Peter Slattery, the co-founder of Collaboreat.