“This Kind of Thinking”

Written by Jeffrey Nytch

It’s always nice when a former student gives you feedback on how you’ve helped them. Recently I asked a student who was at CU a few years ago if he could offer some thoughts on my program and if he felt it had been helpful. I immediately received a very enthusiastic email in response, and there was one line in particular that especially warmed my heart: “By the time I graduated, this kind of thinking was firmly instilled in me…”

“This kind of thinking.” One of the biggest challenges in the realm of entrepreneurship education today is this question of evaluating the impact of what we teach. It’s a constant source of discussion and debate at every entrepreneurship conference and listserves I’ve participated in. Does a successful entrepreneurship program automatically result in X number of start-ups, Y number of patents or inventions? Or is there something more subtle to be gained by studying entrepreneurship? This is especially true in arts entrepreneurship, where goals such as “having a financially sustainable career through my art” may be difficult to quantify. My student speaks to this point when he talks about how his work with the Entrepreneurship Center for Music helped develop the way he thought about his career and how he capitalizes on the opportunities that come his way (not to mention create new opportunities entirely). This is the real benefit of learning entrepreneurship: it’s about developing a new way of looking at the world and how your career can flourish within it.

I mention this not to be self-serving, but rather because I continue to encounter misunderstandings about what exactly arts entrepreneurship is and why it’s important. When I mention to people that I run an arts entrepreneurship program, they will often respond with this phrase: “Ah I see! You teach students how to promote themselves!” Well…not really. That’s only part of it — and it’s the last step in a much more substantive process. Entrepreneurship is not merely about starting a business, organization, or group; it’s not merely about invention, financial success, or fame. And it’s most definitely not just about “promotion.” It’s about developing a set of tools and learning a methodology for applying those tools so that you can successfully go wherever you wish to go with your life. That might indeed mean starting a new venture, but those same tools might just as easily lead to a clearer understanding of your role as an artist in your community, or a more fruitful and powerful direction for your academic research, or becoming a more effective communicator with your audience. These are things that EVERY arts student needs to develop, and yet the question of evaluating the success of teaching such things is not so clear: we know, anecdotally, when we succeed. We can rightfully feel some pride when a student writes us and says, “Thank you! You made a difference!” But most of us are associated with institutions, and institutions think in terms of metrics and deliverables. And for our colleagues who are sometimes wary of entrepreneurship and how it relates to what they do in the studio, this lack of clear-cut success can be troubling.

How do we address this? Part of the answer certainly lies in carefully tracking the professional lives of our alums: simply sending them out into the world and forgetting about them is no longer viable. We owe the students who follow them a sound evaluation of how well we’re preparing them to enter their professional lives, and that requires better data on what our graduates do with the education they receive at our institutions. Another part of the equation is to educate our faculty colleagues about what entrepreneurship is and how it benefits their students. In my experience, once folks understand what it is I’m trying to do they’re a lot more supportive of it — but first there’s a raft of misconceptions to dispense with. And lastly, if there’s nobody talking about entrepreneurship at your school, look into ways to change that! We owe it not only to our students, but also to the audiences of tomorrow and the very future of our art.

Jeffrey Nytch, DMA
Director, Entrepreneurship Center for Music
University of Colorado-Boulder

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