Life in the classroom is different than it was just a few years ago. Students have had it drilled into them that during class discussions, above all else, they must not offend. A study by the Knight Foundation (conducted in 2019) found that 68% of college students say that “the campus climate prevents them from expressing their true opinions for fear of offending their classmates.”
This new ethic makes open and honest conversations in my classes about business ideas and broader discussions about business related issues difficult to foster.
Cold Reality of Entrepreneurship
The trend of trying “not to offend” has made preparing young entrepreneurs for the world of (dare I say it) free enterprise problematic.
Markets have no feelings. Customers don’t worry about trying to “not offend” a business when choosing not to do business with it. If a competitor does a better job of meeting the needs of the consumer, that is where consumers will spend their money. Period.
My job has always been to prepare entrepreneurs for this brutal world. I do this by challenging them to get honest feedback from the market about their idea by teaching them the tools they need to get information (good and bad) to use to improve their business models. My job then becomes reinforcing the message the market is giving them as I coach and mentor them.
I described my role in a blog post that I wrote a dozen years ago:
Entrepreneurs seem to always have plenty of cheerleaders. Family and friends are there for encouragement and lifting your spirits. A good mentor is someone who will tell you the truth — even if it hurts. My students and alumni will sometimes refer to being “Cornwalled”. When they bring their ideas or fledgling businesses to me for advice, my job is to try to find every weak spot, every possible flaw, every vulnerability they face in the competitive market. One student once said to me, “Dr. Cornwall, you are such a Dreamkiller.” As much as I would love to join the ranks of cheerleaders, I know that my role has to be to help ensure they get their business right and find their way to be able to thrive in the market.
Criticism is Not Failure
A common reaction I see from many young entrepreneurs when they are given constructive criticism of their ideas is that they either ignore the information or they give up on their idea.
Last semester I used our family business in an introductory class as an example of the process entrepreneurs go through when pivoting their business models. When we launched our business, the market challenged our assumptions on multiple occasions. Each time, we used the information to pivot our business model to help our business thrive.
My intent with this example was to offer a concrete example of the reality of the entrepreneurial journey. Entrepreneurship requires open-mindedness, determination, and persistence. My goal was to encourage and inspire them. For many in that classroom, it had the opposite effect — it discouraged and even demoralized many of them.
The message we need to offer to this generation is that criticism is not failure. And in many cases, criticism is a critical ingredient for eventual success.
All is Not Lost
What is encouraging to me is that not all of my students are unwilling to hear honest feedback about their ideas. In fact, if approached the right way, many are actually quite receptive.
However, I have had to make significant adjustments in my approach to teaching young, aspiring entrepreneurs. I have learned to be a bit more measured in how I coach them. Rather than starting with a blast of honesty, I slowly build to a crescendo of constructive feedback. I have learned to be more patient. I have learned the power of being kind, compassionate, empathetic….and honest.
I continue to be very proud of the number of students who are becoming successful entrepreneurs. They understand the importance of listening to the market and seeking constructive feedback from mentors. Most importantly, they are learning to not be offended by honesty.