June 29, 2021

'Ordinary people' are entrepreneurs too

Street Challenge pedagogy helps students explore local business ecosystems and get past hero worship of entrepreneurs

While the pop culture take on an entrepreneur may look an awful lot like Bill Gates or Elon Musk — an older white male working in technology — the reality is entrepreneurs span every demographic and business sector.  Further, the hero worship of a few incredibly successful and famous men can act as a barrier to people becoming entrepreneurs because they don’t necessarily see reflections of themselves in that image.

Alice de Koning, the academic director Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking and RBC Teaching Fellow in Entrepreneurial Thinking at the Haskayne School of Business.

Alice de Koning, academic director of the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking and RBC Teaching Fellow in Entrepreneurial Thinking at the Haskayne School of Business.

A few years ago, after realizing her non-business students weren’t connecting to the curriculum in their entrepreneurship class because they didn’t think they knew any entrepreneurs, Dr. Alice de Koning, PhD, took the students for a walk through a commercial business district. She wanted them to notice all the businesses side by side that form an ecosystem, as well as their dynamic interconnections, both co-operative and competitive.

“One of the interesting things the students said to us at that time was: ‘I never saw myself as an entrepreneur but now I think I could do it.’  Walking down main street allowed them to see ordinary people doing things that they could relate to,” says de Koning, the academic director of Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking and RBC Teaching Fellow in Entrepreneurial Thinking at the Haskayne School of Business.

That first trial walk with students along a main street has led to Street Challenge, a pedagogy meant to broaden entrepreneurship education. “The theme of it is really about understanding how businesses and ecosystems relate. One aspect of the final assignment is to identify within a neighbourhood what businesses are missing or what businesses would thrive among these existing businesses,” says de Koning, who developed the pedagogy with her colleague Dr. John McArdle, JD, EdD, associate professor at Salem State University, and a sessional instructor who teaches a course using the pedagogy at the Haskayne School.

Neighbourhoods as analogy for business ecosystem

The neighbourhood, be it Gloucester Massachusetts where de Koning took the first group of students, or Calgary’s Kensington, Beltline or Inglewood business districts, serve as “an analogy for ecosystems that exist for every industry and for every sector,” says de Koning. “The focus could be global markets, or it could be serving businesses rather than consumers, it could be a whole bunch of things. But the fundamentals are they co-exist; they compete but they also co-operate.”

This community-engaged learning also helps entrepreneurship instructors shift focus from entrepreneurs as “heros” to the far more common reality of entrepreneurs working within a community. “What happens so often in the media is we hear about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and seriously nobody relates to them in terms of ‘I could see myself doing that.’ It's a huge barrier.”

Not only is it hard for students because “you can’t be what you can’t see,” but Gates, Musk, and Jobs are often portrayed as acting alone, when in fact they all had business partners that contributed to their success. While one partner “gets the glory,” Microsoft, PayPal and Apple would not be what they are today without the partnerships. “We need to think beyond this supreme heroism and individualism,” says de Koning. “And then of course the other piece is it's not all tech, it's not all male and, it's not all white. And we have to open those doors.”

With the Street Challenge framework, students complete a series of experiential exercises that introduce the concept of community and innovation ecosystems while emphasizing civic engagement. “I think when we go into neighborhoods and say it's not just about the individual, it's not just about the one business, we're all part of a community. We're all part of, what we do affects others, what others do affects us.”

De Koning and McArdle received a two-year University of Calgary Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Grant to help develop Street Challenge. They encourage faculty in other disciplines, including social work, urban studies, kinesiology, and arts and communication to download the Street Challenge resources, including lessons plans, assignments and rubrics. They also invite participants in the Community of Practice they will launch in the fall semester, when McArdle will be a visiting professor in residence at UCalgary.  “Place-based learning can be adapted to all kinds of learning, not just entrepreneurship.”