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Educating young entrepreneurs

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Schools need to recalibrate their curricula to address the many students jumping onto the start-up bandwagon

Ambitious high school students from Singapore to Seattle are eager to launch the next Uber, WeChat or disruptive social entrepreneurship project - even before graduation day.

Amid their interest in joining the start-up bandwagon before university, what are the ethical issues facing educators, and what can be done to address this phenomenon in the age of on-demand service, automation and 24/7 mobile communication?

Several institutions around the world are launching entrepreneurship boot camps to nurture core business skills in future generations. The boot camps cover the whole process of starting a new venture, from idea generation to pitching to angel investors and venture capitalists. Programmes such as these are just one way we educators can add value to the students' schooling experience and ensure they are prepared for the business world.

We are already seeing disruptive technologies changing the global economy at breakneck speed, with automation and robotics making once stable jobs obsolete.

To quote Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella, "our industry does not respect tradition - it only respects innovation". Although Mr Nadella was referring to the technology industry, the reality is that workers in all fields must innovate in order to survive and thrive.

In fact, many of today's children and teenagers are drawn to entrepreneurship, freelancing and other non-traditional paths precisely because they grew up in an economic recession, where they witnessed instability and mass retrenchment in established fields such as banking and engineering.

We educators now need to focus on nurturing our students' hard and soft skills alike - financial literacy and creative problem-solving are good examples of each category - so they can adapt and succeed in an increasingly competitive global job market.

Unfortunately, the typical classroom still churns out book-smart graduates who concentrate almost exclusively on tuition, cramming and academic achievement.

This is not a conducive environment for teaching and nurturing new-age skills. Education must evolve to stay ahead of the curve and meet the needs of the future. As many have realised, paper qualifications are no longer enough.

Instead of waiting for students to learn about entrepreneurship in business school, we need to recalibrate our intense primary and secondary curricula to focus less on grades, and more on passion projects and practical skills.

Students must learn how to conceptualise and execute their own initiatives by tapping into their natural intuitive and innovative capabilities.

Detractors might object to the idea of exposing children to entrepreneurship at such a tender age, especially in Singapore's conservative and risk-averse society.

Concerned parents might argue that these students are too young and impressionable for the aggressive negotiations, management conflicts and endless hustling of the start-up world, and that their inexperience will inevitably lead to failure.

However, today's children and youth are already neck-deep in the "hustle", thanks to their unfettered access to the Internet - many of them are going online to teach themselves business essentials and hawk goods and services for extra pocket money.

The idea behind early entrepreneurship education is to create a sandbox environment where these children can receive expert guidance from real-world entrepreneurs and put their valuable new skills to the test.

Students can take risks and even fail quickly - but safely - if need be. This will boost their self-confidence and better prepare them for the trials and tribulations of the working world.

What is interesting is that these young entrepreneurs often have the greater good in mind and are rarely ruthless profit-seekers.

Many teenagers I have met are keen to start social enterprises and not-for-profit ventures that solve problems and make positive contributions to local and global communities.

Unlike many corporations that pay lip service to the idea of corporate social responsibility, these idealistic youth are aware that capitalism and conscience are not mutually exclusive.

While school is now a distant memory for many of us, we adults would still do well to keep this in mind. At the end of the day, our role as educators is the same: preparing our children to become future leaders and adaptable innovators, who are able to create fresh opportunities for themselves in the face of a demanding future.

The writer is director of business and strategy at Global Indian International School, which runs a high school entrepreneurship boot camp co-created with professors from Insead business school. This article, first published in 
The Business Times, has been edited 
for length.