Category Archives: Learning

Stop ‘teaching’ students about entrepreneurship…!

Last weekend, I was at one of the youngest IIMsIIM Udaipur to be a mentor at their annual event Prarambh where students and young entrepreneurs slog for 32 non-stop hours to build a ‘startup’. No, not just a cool code hack but a (near-real) startup. The event ends with the teams pitching to real VCs. And who knows what can happen there…

Looking at the organizations and sponsors associated with the event, I was keen to get there. Clearly, for a young institution hosting its second annual event, getting such an impressive list of supports was never an easy task.

Now I don’t need any special invite to ever go to Udaipur. I grew up in this wonderful city of lakes. So, any visit, and especially an opportunity to pay forward is always welcome. When my old friend Atul at IIM Udaipur asked my availability to spend a weekend mentoring these student-entrepreneurs, despite having a back to back commitment both before and after the weekend, I just couldn’t say no.

So, after twelve hours of travel and waiting at two airports and inside aircrafts, here I was finally at Udaipur, saturday evening 8:30pm. I simple headed to the arena where students were working to solve some really interesting problems. One team was working on a solution for shopping malls to increase conversions from footfalls to real dollars. One team had this unusual idea to build a business around people carrying shopping list items while travelling overseas. One team had this cool way to make notifications form ‘temporal’ to ‘spatial’ and so on. The one that won was all about smart chat/messaging and they also had an interesting implementation on a safe encryption that utilizes doodles rather than alphanumeric passwords. One team had an idea owner coming from mom-and-pop store background and he understood how to build a solution for that ‘enterprise’ – including there issues and challenges. One team from Mumbai wanted to radically change the entire home buying process – much beyond what some of the best ones offer today. We all mentors spent time with them helping in whatever meaningful manner we could.

Most of the 8 or 9 teams (of 4-5 idea owners and techies each) at the event were very tech savvy, and despite being in a rather ‘non-tech’ place like Udaipur, were reasonably aware of people’s needs and wants. In fact, if anything, I felt they understood it as well or even better than say someone from Bangalore where sometimes we sort of take things for granted. When I finally called the day at 2am, I was tired but the teams went on till 5am.

Those who didn’t have answers, were simply reaching to their online friends and peers across cities and continents and getting whatever help they needed. Having been involved with several hackathons before, including organizing similar events where we got up to 700+ folks and would run on a budget that would need robbing a small bank, here there was no live band, no midnight laserman show, no red bull on the tap (beer was out of question in the college), and definitely not even decent cappuccino – which goes on to show that creativity can flourish under natural conditions :). And if you ask my brutally honest opinion (unfortunately, I don’t have it in sugarcoated flavor), the creativity only flourishes when you take away all these man-made distractions. But that’s for another day…

Next day by 10am, most teams were back doing what they came there for. Most of them had a reasonably good problem statement, some of these did listen to us mentors and took to talking to real humans despite being in a 32-hour timebox. They worked the whole sunday (despite India-South Africa historical world cup match going on without any live broadcast happening inside the work area!) and by 5pm, they had to stop work, and by 6pm, they started making their pitches – 7min for pitch and 3min for Q&A per team. I was quite impressed by what I heard. Their passion and confidence was palpable, and their story was getting better time they would tell it to someone. Many of these teams worked hard to demonstrate the MVP, even if that was a very multi-device use-case and rather clumsy to use. Of course, the ‘poor’ UI didn’t matter 🙂 at that point.

I had to leave halfway to catch my last flight out of town before the final winners were announced. However, from my viewpoint, they were all already winners. In a matter of 32 hours, they all came to the event as individuals and strangers from different cities, but got together to build something of value as they learnt to trust and respect each other and channelise their talent and passion to something creative and innovative. Most importantly, they mastered the entrepreneurial mindset rather than the entrepreneurial curriculum. And that’s my point – we should stop ‘teaching’ entrepreneurship and start learning by doing:

  • Let them think big,
  • Let them ‘discover’ problems,
  • Let them make mistakes,
  • Let them build pie in the sky,
  • Let them learn to lead as peers,
  • Let them figure things out on their own,
  • Let them sell their dreams and inspire others to join them,
  • Let them learn all the ‘101s’ by stumbling upon them rather than sitting in boring classroom sessions,
  • Let them break rules in the safety of an event and learn more about entrepreneurship than they will ever learn by learning and following them!
  • Let them build something and let them teach us back what they’ve learnt…

At the end of the day, I believe if you want to teach them swimming, the last place to teach that is a classroom. Get them into a pool, or a lake and get them started.

Even better…just follow this great advise from Antoine de Saint Exupery:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

(Originally published on https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/stop-teaching-students-entrepreneurship-tathagat-varma/edit and republished on http://yourstory.com/2015/03/stop-teaching-entrepreneurship/) 

Using blog as a teaching aid

Last year, I started conducting an experiment in my classes. For the class assignment, I asked my students to write a blog post that they would need to share among all class mates. Also, I insisted that the blog post be visible to anyone on the internet.

Here’s why I did that:

Address fear of rejection

Whenever I deliver a talk, conduct training or teach a class, I ask how many people blog. I still continue to be unsurprised by disappointingly low numbers in the ballpark of 1-5% – despite geography, industries or experience levels. Having been a blogger myself for close to a decade now, I recognise that apart from lack of blogging skills and an interest in sharing ideas and knowledge, there is another deeper fear at work here – the eternal fear of rejection. What if people don’t like what I write? What if they reject me and leave nasty comments? Would I make a fool of myself among my friends and family? and so on.

Blogging could be a great way to learn, reflect and amplify the learning

Left to themselves, I haven’t seen most people conquering this fear. So, I literally push them out of their comfort zones and make them stand on a tin roof in the hot sun. By ‘forcing’ them to write a blog that they must share with their batchmates, I create a reasonably high challenge for them that they must conquer. First they must read up stuff so that they can put together something that they feel reasonably comfortable (if not massively proud of!) sharing with their cohorts. Secondly, most have no idea where to blog (I can often see that people go and create blog accounts because my class assignment is almost often the only blog entry they have!). Then they have no idea how to actually write a blog post (not that there is some single right way to do it, but how to go about organizing their ideas and thoughts in a concise and interesting way). So, they go and learn looking at other blogs. Finally when they share it with friends, they are working in a group that is all undergoing similar challenge – so it doesn’t matter much that I might make a fool of myself. In fact, from what I have seen so far, if anything, students want to shine in front of their class, and often write pretty good blog post (definitely a pretty one for a first-timer).

Auto-filter against plagiarism

A teacher’s worst nightmare is plagiarism. Actually it is not a nightmare that much because you must already factor that in. With internet at your beck and call, you shouldn’t be surprised if students copy from other source on the net. However, I tell students that I want them to write a blog post that shows up when people google for them. Surely, most of us won’t want a dumb looking or a plagiarised blog post to show up on that search! I haven’t asked them yet to write on LinkedIn and link it to their profile, but that’s worth considering :).

So, making them write a public blog post that they must share with the class helps build an auto-filter against such blatant plagiarism. Of course, I don’t try to fight off negative behavior with negative rewards. I try to give them an opportunity to build a positive artefact that they could be proud of, and might want to ‘show off’ to their friends, and who knows – the kudos they get might just be the right trigger that helps them discover the writer inside them!

Learn from each other

Most learning experiences are dependent on teacher’s knowledge and facilitation skills and an individual student’s interest and ability to grasp as much as possible from them. In case of assignments, students don’t share them with each other much because they don’t want to lose the ‘edge’ lest others copy them. By asking students to share the blog post among them, I open them up for learning from each other – they might find someone’s content very rich, or someone’s style of explanation very helpful, or someone’s usage of examples very creative, and so on. I have often seen students hi-fiving each other on each other’s blog posts, which is also a great way to convert peer pressure into peer respect.

In addition to learning in the process of writing a blog post (which aids the learning process by itself due to the simple act of writing down your thoughts), learning from each other is also a great way to not only reinforce that knowledge, but in order to outshine other students, I have seen many students go out on the net and find some hitherto unknown sources of knowledge and ideas and refer them or build up on them. As a teacher I have no shame in admitting that sometimes that is new to me, and I too end up learning something new and valuable in that process!

Is it all hunky-dory?

Of course, I offer no resistance (and any hope) to people who wilfully want to shortchange themselves! But my students are all working professionals who have decided to get back into college to enhance their learning. No one asked them to do that. Most of them are paying full or a large part of fees from their pockets. More than money, they are taking away serious amount of time (from work and from family) and putting in serious efforts to acquire knowledge and capability that they believe will give them an edge in the coming years. No doubt their diploma will figure high on their resumes, but I doubt that will get them a promotion or a new job if they are not otherwise ready for it. To that end, we are only playing a role in helping them reach where they have decided to take their journey.

They can always disregard all that I have mentioned above, and quite possible some of them do. But my overall experiences have been good enough to continue this experiment.

After all, a teacher’s job is not to just teach them subject. It is to facilitate the process of self-learning.