Training Entrepreneurs as University Challenge: Part I

The discourse on entrepreneurship in the Russian context is usually focused on its legal, financial, and economic issues. Its professional and educational aspects are rarely noted, even though they play equally important role in the development of entrepreneurship in the country. This is why I decided to participate in the Gaidar Forum 2018 “Russia and the World: Values and Virtues”. I moderated the expert discussion. The theme of the conversation was “Entrepreneur: How and What to Teach?” On the same day, the open dialogue “Business School  Model for the 21st Century Leaders” was held. The discussion there was focused on the analysis of advantages and disadvantages of independent business schools. We tried to determine the positions occupied by the Russian professional education system in the global system of entrepreneurship training and the goals we need to focus on. 


Among the experts were Alexey Repik, President of the All-Russian Public Organization “Business Russia”; Chairman, Board of Directors, R-Farm Group; Vadim Dymov, Founder, Chairman, Board of Directors at Dymov; Alexander Utkin, General Director of Cotton Way; Mikhail Melanyin, Founder of; Rostislav Ordovskiy-Tanaevskiy Blanko, Founder, President of Rostik Group; and Alexey Vasilchuk, Co-Owner of RESTart Holding. All these people are great examples of successful business establishement, as well as of partnership with education structures. Vladimir Vasiliev, Rector of ITMO University, and Marat Antashev, Rector of Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO, also participated in the discussion and shared their experience in developing and implementing joint education programmes. In the audience, there were rectors of Russian leading, national research, and flagship universities. 

At the beginning of our conversation, I introduced the participants to some statistics and theses. We know that the share of the Russian GDP associated with entrepreneurship is only 20%, while in other developed countries it is over 50%. This means we have potential for growing in this sphere. In the EU, half of the 62 million jobs are created by entrepreneurs. In other words, there is no way we can overestimate the importance of this sphere for the economy. However, we have to keep in mind three types of entrepreneurship: 1) in the sphere of economy and business in general (when one of the major goals is profit); 2) in the public sphere (the goals are connected with public mission); and 3) in the academic sphere (the main goal is knowledge transfer).  

The understanding of the meaning of academic entrepreneurship has increased over the past 20 years, when the influence of the students’ startups, such as those launched at MIT and Stanford University, on the economy of their countries became obvious. This is true, despite the fact that, according to some Russian and international surveys, only 5% of global population is born entrepreneurs, which suggests that they have fast reaction, lack of fear of being a “black sheep”, creative thinking, etc. Considering the importance of the issue, Russian universities and the government have launched the project “Universities as Centres of Innovations”. By 2020, there will have been about 100 centres created. However, so far, nobody knows how exactly they will need to function. To make the discussion on what and how to teach more productive, keeping in mind that over the past 250-300 years a revolution in understanding what entrepreneurship is about has taken place, it is vital to specify WHAT we mean when we use the term “entrepreneurship” today.


I propose to understand entrepreneurship as an activity aimed at finding new opportunities in conditions of limited resources and a high degree of uncertainty associated with high risks. Or, as they say today, under conditions of a VUCA world, where VUCA is an abbreviation for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. This term was pretty popular among the participants of the Forum. It was coined by American military people at the end of the 1990s. It became popular in business and IT at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. It even appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which called that time “the Decade from Hell”. 

At present, the VUCA concept is part of practical and theoretical management and is gradually becoming a part of the discourse in social studies and humanities, including psychology. 

What characteristics should entrepreneurs have in times of rapid changes, high uncertainty, super complexity, and limited sources?  I asked the experts to name not more than three key personal traits, in order to figure out the phenomenology of entrepreneurship under question. Here is what I heard from them:

-          “Craziness” that describes their readiness to do something that people around may consider unreasonable; tolerance for their own mistakes and the ability to choose “the right time” to make those mistakes; and intellectual endurance as the ability to process the entire information flow and find what is really important (Alexey Repik).

-          Inner leadership as confidence in making their case and the ability to transmit it to other people;  clear goals and values to guide themselves (Vadim Dymov).

-          The ability to inspire people and make them do something they believe in; the ability to make decisions and bring them to life; and the ability to dream and see behind the horizons. (Alexandre Utkin)

-          The capacity to find underappreciated ideas (this is the only way to create a surplus value and enter the market); sensitivity for what is the trend today (to see how the wind blows); and the ability to do everything very quickly (not to let go of the opportunity) (Mikhail Melanyin).

-          The ability to risk (something close to “craziness”); sensitivity instead of consistency and rationality in everything; and the capacity to start from scratch over and over again (Rostislav Ordovskiy-Tanaevskiy Blanko).

-          Leadership; empathy towards partners and consumers; the ability to see forward and think outside the box (so called “cubic thinking” that helps to see problems as cubes and not as a regular tetragon); and flexibility (Alexey Vasilchuk). 

This small survey and a quick vote after it resulted in creating a ranking of the 10 most important entrepreneurial characteristics. The ranking was presented to the audience on the spot.


The ranking does not contain any specific knowledge and skills that entrepreneurs must have, compared to representatives of other professional spheres. Being a moderator of the discussion who represented the sphere of higher professional education, I was quite surprised by the results and even found them paradoxical. Indeed, even such characteristics as strategic thinking and sensitivity to trends have beento be  expected to portrayed by public authorities, military men, researchers, and teachers. However, the experts emphasized personal traits of a successful entrepreneur, not his or her skills and competencies,  and the audience agreed with this point of view. 

Later that day, we tried to define the role of universities in the development of appropriate professional training programmes for entrepreneurs. I would like to present here the most interesting parts of our conversation. 

Ordovskiy-Tanaevskiy Blanko believes there are two types of entrepreneurs. The first is “super heroes” who are people who can feel what other people need before they realize it themselves. Those are geniuses with the ability to change the world. Those are creators of Uber and bitcoin.  5.jpeg

The second type is entrepreneurs who find the right niche for a product or a service. They can help to make a dream come true but they cannot come up with a dream on their own. However, these professionals should be trained as well. What needs to be done at universities first and foremost for them is breaking barriers for building  their business, for example, simplifying the procedure of launching startups, providing them with all necessary information, and so on.  

Alexey Vasilchuk emphasized that the role of a university is similar to what any business school has, which is to teach entrepreneurship in practice. It means that not only books should be involved. It is important to create the feeling that business must be done for people. Values are vital because they can help to communicate with people, no matter whether they are partners or clients. Unlike skills, personal traits can help to take responsibility, to go untill the end, to build relationships, and so on. Unfortunately, modern education is way too standardized for that. Alexey Vasilchuk is a co-owner of the restaurant holding RESTart. Personal characteristics are the key to becoming a staff member there, because skills can be developed in the process. There is no doubt that the general level of education is also important, as “knowing math makes the brain well structured.”

 Mikhail Melanyin graduated from Moscow State Technical University in 2010. He is a co-owner of Mikhail made a whole list of some things he believes were missing at the university when he was a student. He mentioned such things as relationships between university departments and real business, carrying out real projects, opportunities to learn English really well, and some other things. However, the most important role a university plays is in creating an environment that develops the ability to make deliberate decisions and to be responsible for their personal choice.


Aleksey Repik opened his business when he was 22. He believes that education is, first of all, an environment that surrounds people of a very sensitive age, when they absorb everything and respond to everything. The main things he received from the Higher School of Economics were the ability to respond to major challenges with minimum resources; the ability to process a great amount of data; and the ability to communicate with various people. These are universal skills and they are vital for entrepreneurs. They are formed when a certain “problem-oriented” environment surrounds young people at universities: new disciplines, new professors, new requirements occur every semester. They pose new questions, put them under pressure, and help them to mobilize. 

Vadim Dymov got his first degree as an armed forces communication officer. Now he is a master degree student at the Faculty of History at Moscow State University. In his opinion, universities do not need any special alterations. They must be comfortable places for students. Universities cannot bring up entrepreneurs. People do that on their own. All they need is being introduced to a wide range of opportunities and being showed how important classical knowledge is, as it is a “creme de la creme” of everything that humanity has come up with over its history. Universities must be involved in preparing smart people who will help the society to evolve. 

Alexandre Utkin argues that entrepreneurship cannot be taught. It is something people are born with or not. Universities must make “complex people”. A complex person is a well-educated person with critical thinking and doubts, one who knows history, philosophy, physics, math, and languages. It is not important whether this person becomes an entrepreneur or a politician. What is important is that a critical number of such people will create a special environment that is comfortable for entrepreneurs and makes them feel needed. Today an entrepreneur is more of a damaged person who lives in aggressive environment as a gladiator who is “ready to die” day after day. 7.jpg

 I asked him if university professors who are not entrepreneurs themselves and have no such experience can teach entrepreneurship. Alexandre answered “yes” because “professors bring up complex people who later become entrepreneurs.” 

Marat Antashev, Rector of Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO, pointed out that despite differences in university and business education, the best international business schools have much in common with the best universities. They create a special environment that is filled with interest, trust, and values that should be distinguished from financial value, which is profit. They provide a wide range of knowledge. Marat told us that he also does not believe that entrepreneurship can be taught. It is more important to make people understand how development (a linear term) is different from transformation (a non-linear term) in order to be able to develop and transform their business. 

Vladimir Vasiliev, Rector of ITMO University, set universal goals for a university in training all kinds of professionals, which are to generate people and to generate knowledge. People, including future entrepreneurs, need to choose their educational paths and universities, in accordance with their missions, values, and cultural codes. And they need to be responsible for their choices. 

I drew the following conclusions and proposed some theses: 

-          The VUCA economy is moved forward by entrepreneurs who are natural born “heroes” with special talents. They get help from entrepreneurs who are “technicians”. There are few heroes and many technicians.   Altogether they are 5% of the total population.

-          Universities must find those 5% and put them into a special environment that has values and knowledge and can make them complex people with critical thinking, a wide range of knowledge, and a desire to solve complex problems. Complex people become leaders in all sphere of professional activity, including entrepreneurship.

-          Shaping personal traits in future entrepreneurs is more important than developing particular skills that can be easily taught when needed.

-          An entrepreneur has a right to make mistakes, just like any other person. Unfortunately, the traditional university system does not acknowledge it. That may be explained  by its inflexibility, which is a target for change.

-          Our traditional paternalistic values, such as the role of “a boss who comes and manages everything”, do not encourage people to show initiative and take responsibility. That is why a person who is more or less independent and competent appears to be a hero. Heroes should be recognized and supported.

-          The training of entrepreneurs is provided by numerous state and independent educational institutions. Universities offer three levels of such training: 1) creating a general university environment (at faculties, education programmes, and so on) that motivates students’ interest in entrepreneurship; 2) creating a specific environment in partnership with business to develop entrepreneurial skills; and 3) creating a university ecosystem with an entrepreneurial infrastructure that includes conditions for startuppers. To do that, we need to change the management system at universities. This should include supervising councils with entrepreneurs as members who can influence developing educational programmes and implementing them. 

These are the conclusions we came to during our first public discussion “Entrepreneur: How and What to Teach?” In my next post I will present some ideas on how Tomsk State University is going to respond to that challenge.