What is Educational Entrepreneurship?

Guanacaste, Costa Rica

What is Educational Entrepreneurship?

Education entrepreneurs: visionary thinkers who create new for-profit or nonprofit organizations from scratch that redefine our sense of what is possible. These organizations stand separate and independent from existing institutions like public school districts and teacher colleges; as such, they and the entrepreneurs who start them have the potential to spark more rapid, dramatic change than might otherwise be created by status quo organizations.

An innovator whose characteristics and activities may lead to transformation –not merely the slight improvement- of the public education system. (Kim Smith).

Education entrepreneurs operate outside the system because of the unique nature of the resources and support they need to be successful in this endeavor. Whether they are creating new services, schools or tools, education entrepreneurs –particularly those who seek to have a major impact on the system itself- are worthy of our consideration because they are motivated by a novel vision for how public education could be a different and better system and they create new organizations to carry out that vision. If they receive the appropriate resources, education entrepreneurs may very well lead the public education system toward vastly improved outcomes.


In general, it is important to understand that entrepreneurs have a vision for a better way of doing things, thinking beyond the constraints of current rules and resources. Perhaps more importantly, they have the passion and sense of urgency that literally compels them to take the risks necessary to realize that vision. They create new organizations to make the changes they want to see in the world –and by doing so, they inspire others to follow.

Be visionary thinkers. “Entrepreneurs do more than anyone thinks possible with less than anyone thinks possible.”

Start new organizations. For entrepreneurs, innovative ideas simply aren’t enough: Their sense of urgency and drive to achieve leads them to take action by creating new organizations that will make their vision a reality.

Believe they can change they way this are done. Psychologist Martin Seligman has found that certain people have developed “learned optimism”, in which they believe successes are the result of their own hard work while seeing setbacks as external and temporary hurdles they need to overcome. This trait often goes hand in hand with a belief that one can control his or her own fate. Taken together, these characteristics allow entrepreneurs to face the potential failure inherent in creating a new organization by focusing on likely success and overcoming all hurdles that stand in the way.

Social Entrepreneurs in Education

The social entrepreneurs in education have great potential for impact today because they are focused on making a significant difference on outcomes of the K-12 system as a whole, particularly for those students and communities who are currently undeserved, rather than just for a limited set of students.

The power of these entrepreneurs is not only as developers of alternative sources of teachers, leaders, schools and tools, but also as change agents whose efforts spur change in the larger system.

Entrepreneurs have three crucial roles:

As change agents. Entrepreneurs can demonstrate what is possible when resources are used differently and point the way toward how policy and practice might be changed in light of what they accomplish.

As venues for new skill sets and mindsets. The organizations that entrepreneurs create often have the kind of culture that draws and retains achievement-oriented employees who might not otherwise be involved in the more bureaucratic public education system.

As developers of learning laboratories where experimentations and ongoing learning are encouraged. As problem solvers, entrepreneurs are constant learners who regularly review progress and correct course.

What creates opportunity for education entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs can be important change agents for large, complex systems that need dramatic improvement. But what specifically opens the door for entrepreneurs to make this difference? In general, something changes suddenly or slowly over time, requiring new problem-solving approaches.

Change in expectations. The current system of K-12 public schooling was created in a social and economic context that was entirely different from our current one. Our nation’s postindustrial and increasingly global economy is now driven by knowledge and by higher-order skills like symbolic reasoning, analysis, and communication.

The public’s expectations of the system have ballooned, such that public schools are now expected to serve all children equally and well. This change in expectations demands innovative new approaches. Many expect that nearly all high school students should graduate ready to attend college.

Because the standards and accountability movements have begun to define desired learning outcomes and freed up the means for getting there, policymakers have created opportunities for entrepreneurs to develop new approaches to schooling. State charter school laws allow individuals and groups to create new public schools that are supported with public dollars but managed independently.

New knowledge emerges. New knowledge creates opportunity for all kinds of change in education. Sometimes this new knowledge is generated from within the field of education, such as when entrepreneurs create a new organization based on a new (or underutilized) approach to teaching that they find to be effective.

Kim Smith and Julie Landry Petersen-New Schools Venture Fund