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Researching Entrepreneurship of All Kinds:® Snapshots of Five Distinctive Eras

By Heidi Neck

People keep asking me what I expect to get out of the new Entrepreneur Experience Lab (for more details, see Overview of the Entrepreneur Experience Lab). My response? If I knew beforehand what we were going to get, Babson would not have needed to make the investment in it. I am confident, however, that our research design will produce sea changes for entrepreneurs of all kinds and redefine entrepreneurship education.

The lab officially kicked off in November 2010, but before the primary research could begin, we needed to have a better understanding of the experiences of entrepreneurs throughout U.S. history. Our journey through a compendium of secondary sources resulted in Eras of Entrepreneurship, an interactive and visual era analysis map. (I suggest that everyone play around with the era analysis because it could be a great tool to use in your classrooms.) Rob Williams, a member of the design and research team, discusses how we arrived at the particular narrative for the era analysis. Rob says, “We decided to look at the endeavor of enterprise in the U.S. from the time of the first colonies to the present day. Our objective was to identify distinct eras—eras based on the dominant characteristics of entrepreneurship—and to show changes and key differences in these characteristics over time.”

The era analysis resulted in five distinct eras that mark pivotal points in our entrepreneurial history.

Five Eras:

  1. Emergence of the Self-Made Man (Colonial America before 1776)
  2. An Entrepreneurial Nation (1st Industrial Revolution 1776–1865)
  3. The Pinnacle of Entrepreneurship (2nd Industrial Revolution 1865–1920)
  4. Rise of Institutional America (Interwar and Postwar America 1920–1975)
  5. Confined Re-Emergence (Knowledge Economy 1.0 1975–present)
Emergence of the Self-Made Man

For each era we look at the following:

  • Emergence of the Self-Made Man (Colonial America before 1776)
  • An Entrepreneurial Nation (1st Industrial Revolution 1776–1865)
  • The Pinnacle of Entrepreneurship (2nd Industrial Revolution 1865–1920)
  • Rise of Institutional America (Interwar and Postwar America 1920–1975)
  • Confined Re-Emergence (Knowledge Economy 1.0 1975–present)
Entrepreneurial Roles

Simply looking at the evolution of entrepreneurship education across the eras we note the obvious—that entrepreneurship has its roots in the founding of the United States of America. However, formal business education did not materialize until the 1900s when the emergence of corporate America demanded professional training. Though not even considered a viable career path until the mid-1900s, entrepreneurs learned through apprentice and demanding trial and error.

Teaching entrepreneurship in an actual classroom first occurred in 1947 at Harvard University. Though it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that entrepreneurship started to appear in course catalogs of both graduate and undergraduate programs. In the early 1980s, the late Jeff Timmons of Babson College predicted that entrepreneurship education would be the next big sea change in business education. He also recognized that with such demand there would be a supply shortage of qualified faculty to teach entrepreneurship courses.

As a result of seeing this demand, Timmons started the Price-Babson Symposium for Entrepreneurship Educators in 1984 to train faculty to teach the most relevant and emerging discipline of our time. He invited entrepreneurs and academics to Babson for a week to learn and share best practices for teaching entrepreneurs. With entrepreneurs and academics in the same room, a teachable and learnable method of entrepreneurship emerged and this method continues to form the foundation of all of our educators programs that we continue today.

Looking at the story of entrepreneurship education in the U.S. is just one of many stories that can be learned from the era analysis. The entire analysis is a historical narrative of the entire entrepreneurship ecosystem and how it has evolved and contributed to the role of the U.S. as an economic superpower.

What’s next? For some direction, you might consider a quotation on our portal website within the era analysis:

The rhetoric is out there—our economic future depends on entrepreneurship—but we can't get there with the current national narrative. Within the current story, entrepreneurship is viewed as central to just a few advanced markets such as technology and health care; is confined to known places of activity such as university labs, incubators or Silicon Valley; is so narrowly defined that only a few are recognized as entrepreneurs; is largely absent from our education and work force development systems; and relies on well-trodden 20th century support environments, platforms, and tools.

Building the path ahead will require, no doubt, the writing and articulation of a new story around Entrepreneurship of All Kinds®.

Overview of the Entrepre-
neur Experience Lab

Babson College and Rhode Island’s Business Innovation Factory (BIF) have partnered to develop a pilot research platform for Entrepreneurship of All Kinds in the United States called the Entrepreneur Experience Lab. The longer-term plan is to get the lab running in the U.S., test the methodology, revise as needed, and then replicate the lab globally with partner institutions, recognizing that the experience of entrepreneurship in the U.S. can be dramatically different from the experiences of entrepreneurs in Chile, Thailand, Germany, Pakistan, or Nigeria.

We have two general objectives for the lab. First, we want to conduct design research grounded in ethnographic methods to map the experience of entrepreneurs in order for Babson and BIF to identify, create, and build new support solutions that will help build future generations of entrepreneurs. But, we will extend the boundaries of our research beyond “starting a new venture” toward a more expansive vision of studying Entrepreneurship of All Kinds. Second, as an academic institution, we also want to use the data collected in the lab to contribute to the scholarly conversations and maintain our thought leadership in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship education. Our qualitative, ethnographic approach to the lab research requires us to develop empathy for the people we are studying, to really understand how they experience their experience of entrepreneurship. We are proud to say this is a different and compelling type of research.

Entrepreneur Experience Lab