How do you make an entrepreneur? Education research and policy are rife with demands for professional development that gets measurable results: employment, earnings, promotion and business start-ups. Students too want to make sure their college degrees bring a positive return on investment over the long term.
Successful entrepreneurs bring a mix of critical thinking, innovation, business acumen and lifelong experiential learning. So how can you best shape your educational path for entrepreneurial success?
Patricia Bixel, professor of history at Maine Maritime Academy, highlights the importance of a broad-based education.
“Your trades get you a job; humanities or liberal arts education gets you a promotion. Without critical thinking skills, cultural awareness, writing skills, and a foundational awareness of your own culture, you won’t get past that entry-level position,” Bixel says.
Entrepreneurs need strong leadership skills, as well as an understanding of history and humanity to help capitalize on opportunities and meet the challenges of a changing cultural and economic environment.
“It scares me that we are reducing post-K-12 education to vocational skills, because I believe it’s the broader education that focuses on the human experience that gives people a perspective for leadership and personal growth,” says Bixel.
Both formal and experiential education contribute to successful entrepreneurship.
Ray Gauvin is a first-generation college graduate and a lifelong entrepreneur. A graduate of the University of Maine at Portland — now the University of Southern Maine — Ray owned franchises of Advantage Payroll Services in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Now a retiree and philanthropist, Gauvin is paying it forward with the Aroostook Aspirations Initiative, which provides scholarships, internships, training, inspiration and support for first-generation and economically disadvantaged students in Aroostook County.
“My education provided me the self-confidence that I needed to pursue a career as an entrepreneur,” says Gauvin, who received a bachelor of science degree in accounting and a minor in economics. “But the many skills I learned as a young person, such as running my own lawn mowing business, window washing, flower garden care, and a food vendor business, were invaluable to my future success. My experience as a newspaper carrier for nine years provided me with all aspects of running a business: marketing, accounting, customer relationships, making a profit, and saving for future needs.”
Jessica Hanson, who now operates her own photography business, graduated from Presque Isle High School and attended the University of Maine at Presque Isle for a semester and a half.
Hanson’s photography passion was in the making for years, as she worked at Sears’ portrait studio, raised two boys and built her skills as a hobby before starting her own business. In 2013, she launched J.L.H. Photography from her home in Westfield and began booking sessions with customers throughout Aroostook County.
Hanson highlights the importance of hands-on experience. “I have taught myself photography,” she says. “I also believe being a mother has helped out. When I go to a session, I put myself in the client’s spot and ask, ‘What would I like?’ My thought is if it isn’t good enough for me, then it won’t be for the client.”
The most important education for entrepreneurship often comes from mentoring and relationship-building, Hanson says.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and help,” she says. “Find someone who is in the same profession, meet with them, and ask questions.”
Networking matters. Gauvin notes that his degree “opened many doors for me, which, in turn, helped me make my business so successful. Many relationships were formed at this time that enabled me to tap resources that could help my business in the future.”
To shape your entrepreneurial education, remember that relationship-building, problem-solving and risk-taking are as important — and as learnable — as marketing and financial management. Successful entrepreneurs combine formal education, life experience, and transferable skills with an ongoing curiosity and commitment to learning.
Erica Quin-Easter is Microenterprise Coordinator for Women, Work, and Community in Aroostook County, where she will offer the free, twelve-week New Ventures Entrepreneurship Training starting September 9 in Presque Isle. New Ventures classes also begin September 5 in South Portland and September 17 in Bangor. Women, Work, and Community’s statewide trainings and services are open to entrepreneurs of all genders. For information on upcoming classes and other resources, call 800-442-2092 or visit www.womenworkandcommunity.org.