Entrepreneurship education vital for a sustainable society

Can incorporating entrepreneurship in higher education programmes solve today’s great sustainability challenges? How do we create the right conditions to increase the number of entrepreneurs focusing on sustainability in university-adjacent environments? IVA’s Entrepreneurship Academy focused on these topics at a conference organised within the framework of NordSEnt – Nordic Sustainable Entrepreneurship Network.

Professor Colette Henry of Dundalk Institute of Technology kicked off the conference and presented her definition of entrepreneurship. She sees it as seeing opportunities where no one else can see any.

- The entrepreneurial process starts at the very beginning where there is nothing; when everything feels like chaos, contradiction and confusion, said Henry.

It is easier to manage this complex situation if you have the right tools, and this is where entrepreneurship education has a very important role to play. Henry believes it is possible to teach entrepreneurship and that everyone should make use of the entrepreneurial skills needed in a complex world.

- But structural changes are required in the form of strong leadership to increase the focus on incorporating sustainability in entrepreneurship education – and at our universities. It’s also important to strive for co-creation and partnership, said Henry.

Using the Global Sustainable Development Goals often works well as a starting point in university programmes. But these goals are set at a general level and students may find it hard to know what they themselves should do to help solve the sustainability challenges.

- Breaking down goals into smaller areas and focusing on the students’ everyday lives makes it easier to understand and identify solutions, said Henry.

Henry also answered questions from the audience. One of the questions addressed the fact that while entrepreneurship is supposed to be a solution to the great sustainability challenges, just 100 corporations are said to be responsible for most of the environmental pollution in the world. What can we do about that situation?

- Invite these corporations to universities and let students in master’s programmes address the problems and provide suggestions for solutions, Henry proposed.

What was said at the conference

The conference included multiple presentations and two panel debates with representatives from academia, the ecosystem around universities, and business and industry. Here are some of the questions and themes that were addressed:

Make use of the knowledge and the tools that other universities have developed. There is no point in reinventing the wheel each time. There is a vast number of tools available that can easily be used in entrepreneurship education. Use them and give credit to their creators. That way, everyone is happy!

The best students have great influence. They often regard sustainability as vital and many of them are choosing to work for companies that have a sustainability focus.

- This puts pressure on companies who want to recruit students. Companies should prioritise sustainability so they’re seen as offering an attractive workplace, said Tobias Fredberg, Chalmers University of Technology.

Lovisa Berglund is a student at Chalmers and Chair of IVA’s Student Council. She brought up a problem with the emphasis on educating young people to solve sustainability issues, pointing out that it will take some time before they graduate and can enter the workplace.

- Since we have a crisis now, we should take action to first solve the acute sustainability problems and then educate the students – or at least do both things at the same time, said Berglund.

Read about the results of the NordSEnt project

During the conference a report was launched containing suggestions on how to create the right conditions for sustainable entrepreneurship in university-adjacent environments. Here are some of the recommendations in NordSEnt’s report:

  • It is important to include sustainable entrepreneurship in new strategies and objectives at the organisation level of universities.
  • Integrate sustainability in education programmes – not as individual courses or elements. Ensure that entrepreneurship education is focused on action. Learning by doing is key.
  • Work in cooperation and form partnerships with surrounding industries and businesses. Allow the students to work on cases that are relevant to them.
  • Focus on a team-based and multidisciplinary approach. Ensure diversity in the teams with regards to gender, ethnicity etc. and preferably also with different disciplines represented.
  • If educators work in teams they can benefit from each other’s various skills and knowledge, which will enable a deeper understanding of complex issues.
  • Actors who fund research are looking for sustainability and that research is reflected in education programmes. Over time, an increased focus on sustainability in university research projects leads to students who are more engaged in sustainability issues.

More recommendations, tips and tricks from various universities are available in the report “Sustainable Entrepreneurship in the Nordic and Baltic Region”. IVA’s Entrepreneurship Academy has compiled the Swedish section of this report which can be downloaded here.

What can you do?

At the start of the conference Colette Henry gave the participants a question to reflect on. The Entrepreneurship Academy would like to pose the same question to you:

What are things (big or small) that you can do in your professional role – or personally as a private individual – to help solve some of the world’s great sustainability challenges?

Feel free to contact us if you would like to be in our network of entrepreneur educators.

See the conference here:

Day 1 

Day 2 

Photographer: Viktor Aronsson