Twenty years ago, a Student Entrepreneur spoke to me of his definition of an entrepreneur. I have never forgotten it. “The entrepreneur is a passionate, freedom-loving being, who builds himself a prison without bars.” It seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, to encapsulate the key elements of what it means to be an entrepreneur: passion, creation and the freedom to be enterprising. And this in a world which tends to pigeonhole individuals and enclose them in systems, inside cages that might be golden, but which lack passion, initiative and freedom.
What are incubators if not social systems trying above all to survive and progress in increasingly competitive environments? Should they construct the idea that creating a business can be modelled, tooled and that an entrepreneur can be assimilated into an ideal type of manager ?
In a world undergoing profound change, incubators in general and those dedicated to students or young graduates, could usefully question themselves about their purpose, from a dual point of view.
1. First, from society’s point of view. What fresh value, as incubators, are we bringing to society? What is our true impact on the development of incubated start-ups and entrepreneurs? What effects does our activity have on demographic, economic, ecological and environmental transitions? All this can be interpreted by indicators and measured, but certainly not by regularly indicating survival rates of 3 to 5 years, the number of jobs created, turn-over figures, etc. We all know how much, among other sources of deviation, entry selection bias can falsify results. It seems to us that incubators would gain in societal legitimacy if they engaged (or were engaged) in systematic assessment approaches.
2. Next, from the point of view of Student Entrepreneurs. How can we help them to grow in the entrepreneurial world without diminishing their passion or reining in their creativity and feeling of freedom? Many interesting things have been written about supporting entrepreneurs, attitudes to support and their consequences, but it has to be said that practical implementation is far from being achieved.
One of the major challenges of incubation, beyond the start-up project, is to teach an individual to become an entrepreneur, able to think, decide and act in business situations. Far from being a ‘technical’ dimension, a successful incubation process should be appreciated in light of the transformation of the individuals being incubated. How sure are we today that the people leaving an incubator after months of ‘treatment’ have really taken on the habits, mindset, reflexes and behaviours of the entrepreneur ?
Alain Fayolle, professor EMLyon business school, Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship, Associate Editor of JSBM