Real Leaders

3 Ways to Perfect the Art of Principled Entrepreneurship

There are three key components to teaching Principled Entrepreneurship.

1. Discover who you are, create a vision for who you want to be, and develop a plan to get there

Creativity is highly correlated with self-knowledge, and passion with purpose. If we want to help students prepare for their lives as Principled Entrepreneurs, we have to move from trying to tell them what to do to helping them find their identity, values, desires, and passion, and then help them figure out a way to create new value from those that generate an economic return. Only then will the work we do on a daily basis no longer be just a way to make a living, but become a way of life. A vocation. A path to human excellence and happiness. In the foundational course we call “Vocation of Business,” we help each student explore their personality, dreams, and identity. 

Through various exercises, they create a list of the top values they have and describe how they intend to manifest these in life. Each student learns about mission statements and creates their very own after careful research and deliberation. They determine what virtues they need to cultivate to best support this mission. They go through what’s called the exercise to find out what their core motivations are and how that applies to their work. They are encouraged to explore and find their personal learning style. What many students don’t initially understand is that virtues manifest themselves and are trained in even the smallest everyday acts.

Training in virtue is akin to going to the gym. It takes the constant exercise of our will. Virtues are like a section of a workout routine. They start out as an aspirational activity, like wishing we could get out of bed when the alarm rings the first time. We won’t succeed right away; it’s one step forward and two back. Unless we apply our free will, we would give into our lower desires and give up. But as we stick with it, forgive ourselves for past failures, recommit, and never give up, the activity slowly becomes a habit.

We eventually do it without even thinking about it. Once we achieve that, we can focus on the next such activity, the next virtue to pursue. I ask each student to choose three virtues to which they aspire and practice them on a daily basis for an entire semester. Their reflection write-ups after this period of “training” always amaze and inspire me.

Virtues are so easily acquired, and become so powerful when we possess them. The students often point out that they found it remarkable how these habits come about through small but consistent effort, yet how amazed they are at how far they’ve come in just three months. Altogether, the virtues we possess add up to our character. As people, we are creatures of habit. How we see, how we think, how we act—even how we feel. All of these areas are opportunities for intentionality, for applying our will, for training in virtue and development of firm character.

What this means for Principled Entrepreneurs is that we live in a hopeful reality. Every human being has the ability to grow in their perfection, in their excellence, and it’s easier than most people think. Principled Entrepreneurs believe in humanity. Principled Entrepreneurs always see the human person—and that starts with ourselves—as the solution, the opportunity, the hope. Never the problem. I believe it is absolutely imperative to teach this to aspiring entrepreneurs, to add this to their arsenal of virtues. Discovering our personal vocation is actually the toughest thing for any one of us to figure out. It requires faith, insight, wisdom, experimentation, and determination. It is a very difficult process—much more difficult and complicated than memorizing facts and completing processes step-by-step. As a matter of fact, it is so difficult to do that I suspect a majority of people don’t do it and never find out what their actual vocation is. 

They never put the core of their energy into envisioning and becoming the best version of themselves. They go through life without knowing who they really are. You can’t be a Principled Entrepreneur without first discovering who you want to be.

2. Discover and develop your aptitudes, creativity, and strengths

When was the last time you lost track of time when you worked on something? The kind of experience we call “being in the zone.”

It happens when we are so fully absorbed in an activity, so enthralled, that we have such a high level of energized focus and fulfillment that it transcends time. Was your experience related to what you do for work? Most people I meet don’t experience flow in work, and I think any college or university curriculum should find a way not only to teach students about flow, but create situations for them to experience and replicate it and help them discover ways to find a career that allows them to experience flow on a regular basis.

At the Ciocca Center, we go about helping our students find their “zone” by having them try out a lot of different things. Through the various courses we offer the student, we ask them to do a wide range of business-related activities that they have never done before. The “first business” experience of the “Vocation of Business” class taps into creative and online activities and the definition of customer-centered value propositions. 

The Small Business Lab requires that students get hands-on experience in a variety of businesses, both established ones as well as startups that we work with. They’re taught to quickly study the competitive landscape, analyze the opportunities, manage the financial aspects of the business, develop strategies, and engage in team work to sell the new vision both inside and outside of the company. The theory courses combine research, presentations, and debates. The Principled Entrepreneurship course has a heavy focus on creativity, innovation, and communication.

The guided studies and internship programs give the students more practical experience in a variety of industry sectors and growth stages. Altogether, the students’ education is designed to expose them to all aspects of business and give them plenty of extended hands-on experience. Throughout this process, students are guided to think about their experience and analyze it from a perspective of growth in personal excellence and service: What value can I add? That context helps them to notice when they experience flow and gives them the support and confidence to make career decisions consistent with their true vocation.

3. Discover and develop how to apply the previous two points to create value for others, and learn to put failure in the service of the pursuit of excellence.

At Catholic University’s Busch School of Business, our freshmen business students’ first assignment in the Vocation of Business course is to start their own company. Specifically, students are asked to start a special interest social media account. By exploring what they have to offer others in terms of their unique interest or expertise, they create a social media effort that explains and explores this topic and recommends various products along the way. Through this three-month-long exercise, students internalize the most rudimentary but essential question of business: “How may I help you?” They are at once customer-centered and self-aware.

These blogs are then monetized in part through strategies such as affiliate marketing. As an affiliate of websites like Amazon, the student earns a bonus each time someone buys through one of their links. Thus, each student creates their own “small business” during the first semester of their freshman year. The hurdle I have to overcome with them is the same every year: fear of failure, especially in the context of a class. I have come to believe that students and aspiring entrepreneurs need to have permission to make mistakes.

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