Dr Ria Aerts, Director of International Entrepreneurship, Sustainability and Empowerment - Global Opportunities Commercialisation

Dr Ria Aerts is a specialist in Entrepreneurship and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) with special emphasis on innovation and digitalisation, globalisation, education, youth, sustainability, women entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, and family businesses. She has experience working with companies in diverse industries and has worked both in the private and the public sector. Dr Ria Aerts has been involved in these areas as a consultant, advisor, mentor, business owner as well as an award-winning academic researcher and teacher. The ability to connect three different worlds: academic, business and government around Entrepreneurship and SMEs, makes her a real distinguished talent as a connector, catalyst, and accelerator. She is multicultural and multi-language savvy having lived and worked in several countries across 4 continents. Dr Ria Aerts belongs to extensive networks of entrepreneurs, academics, and consultants in Europe, Latin America, the USA, Africa, and Australia.


Last year, at an international conference on entrepreneurship, we as experts in the field had a lively conversation whether entrepreneurial behaviour is linked to gene and therefore, education can contribute little to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurial parents were role models for some successful entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. Still, somehow education has a role to play. Not all famous entrepreneurs have entrepreneurial parents. Larry Page and Sergey Brin contribute their success to their Montessori education. The self-directed learning, being self-motivated, questioning what is going on in the world and doing things a little differently were essential in growing Google from an ordinary search engine company into a brand that has taken over the word “search” by itself and is being used as such by millions of people worldwide. And then there are the successful entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of university and Elon Musk starting his own school because traditional education is failing his standards. Some academic studies support the idea that entrepreneurship education plays an important role in increasing the entrepreneurial capacity of students. Others proof that entrepreneurship courses discourage students from starting their own business. What needs to change in traditional education systems, so they support entrepreneurship?

There is no agreement in the academic world of entrepreneurship on what components education needs to focus on to create an effective entrepreneurial program. Courses helping to increase marketing skills, financial literacy, creating a business plan, project management are essential tools, but they do not define entrepreneurship. Management roles also require these skills. Obtaining these skills in formal programs are not enough to start and being successful in entrepreneurial activities. Practical know-how is crucial, combined with personality factors.

Several characteristics of successful entrepreneurs are mentioned in business and academic entrepreneurship literature like innovativeness and creativity, proactiveness, emotional intelligence, perseverance and determination, problem-solving, and responsibility. These personal factors are rarely focused on in traditional education systems. Even worse, sometimes the conventional education system counteracts on or suppresses some of the most important personal factors of entrepreneurship. There are solutions that can be implemented in traditional education systems.

Switching from a competitive education model to a personal development model will help not only generate more entrepreneurs, but it will also increase the survival rate of their companies. It is useless to keep on mass producing the average student that fits in the assembly line of a factory or the desk seats of office cubicles. This made sense in the industrial era. Today these types of jobs are taken over by robots and other technologies. It is time to focus on the unique potential of every student and shift from a model where most students are labelled incompetent to a system where everybody is a winner.

Innovativeness and creativity can only be stimulated in an environment where the student thinks for him/herself. In a conventional education system, the teacher instructs all the students in the same way what to learn. The students’ personal interests, learning styles, and abilities are ignored. It would be better to tailor the education to the student instead of having the student to adapt to the education system. When a student gets the choice what and how to learn a subject, get to follow his/her curiosity, get to experiment hands-on, and learn from mistakes;  the student learns to think independently, be responsible, and be creative to come up with innovative solutions to correct mistakes and bring solutions to problems. This type of education system is the perfect breeding ground for developing personal characteristics identified as essential for entrepreneurs.

When education starts with the student’s passion, there will be no boredom. There will be an eagerness to learn, not because the student wants to pass a test but because the student is curious to know and wants to find out how things work. This proactive behaviour is linked to entrepreneurship.

In most education systems around the world, the evaluation system is based on testing what the student fails to know. Students are afraid of making mistakes. Understanding that making errors is a normal part of learning is essential in being able to become an entrepreneur. To learn, you must be willing to make mistakes. Unfortunately, the traditional education system leaves little room for making mistakes and punishes students by giving them a low grade. It gets even worse when they get ranked and compared to the students that got higher grades. Almost every student feels like they are not good enough because only a few can get the highest grade. It leads to uncertainty and disbelieves in their own capabilities. It undermines their self-esteem. It discourages teamwork and collaboration. It is a system that discourages learning. When interviewing migrant women in business, it was their lack of confidence that was one of the main barriers to their success. In academic literature, self-efficacy and emotional intelligence are key elements leading to entrepreneurial success.

The effort to get to a good or bad result is hardly ever applauded. Delivering results is important but being able to overcome hurdles is one of the main keys to continues entrepreneurial success. If every entrepreneur, who encountered setbacks and was not able to reach the pre-set goals, would be marked a failure and not given the chance and time to overcome the setback, there would be almost no successful people. Only the ones who learned to get up after defeat, shake it off and restart, will be able to let a business grow. When successful entrepreneurs tell their story, almost all of them had to overcome barriers. Perseverance leads to triumph.

An evaluation system that celebrates personal successes and gives room to self-improvement will be beneficial in stimulating entrepreneurship in students. Everybody is good at something. Successful entrepreneurs are confident in their abilities, and they know their limitations. They will compensate the latter by adding a person to their team, who is an expert in that domain. In the gaming industry, they use a level-based evaluation system mirrored to the assessment method developed by dr. Maria Montessori. A student is mastering a topic when, after the initiation of the lesson and the practising period, the student can teach somebody else the topic. In a video game, a person can get from a low level to a higher level by practising. It is a fun and exciting way to be eager to want to learn more. The player believes he/she can succeed if he/she puts in the effort. There are also games that encourage teamwork in a fun and entertaining way.

Every person has passions and talents that can lead to the development of innovative products and services. An education system that embraces this uniqueness stimulates entrepreneurship. Today in our society, we applaud entrepreneurship and want our students to become entrepreneurs. The number of university and non-university incubators are sprouting out of the ground like mushrooms. Still today, most students are moulded in this industrial age education system that clashes with entrepreneurship. Many will fail. This is also reflected in the low survival rate (5% or less) of most businesses beyond 5 years. When we give students from a young age the change to develop a curious mind open to anything instead of a mind programmed to fit in a certain subject, it will benefit future entrepreneurs and reduce business failure.

Learning in a project-based way is much more useful and fun. For example, when a child wants to make a solar panel, the child learns about biology, engineering, physics, design, collaboration with others, teamwork, and more. The child learns because they want to learn. They develop a love for learning that will stay a lifetime. Students that are stuck in the traditional system can stimulate this curiosity by developing a personal project around a study topic they are really interested in. Transfer the theoretical knowledge in something practical. Students can set their own learning terms instead of waiting for the teacher or professor to tell them what to do. It will help to see connections between subjects and train the student to become a multidisciplinary thinker and doer. It will stimulate curiosity and eagerness to learn more. It is the joy of discovery that stimulates entrepreneurship.


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