Dismantling the Barriers to Creative Entrepreneurship

Business schools almost universally claim to enable creative thinkers, gamechangers, and unicorn raisers—but are they fostering entrepreneurship the right way?
Illustration of businesswoman emerging from box and reaching for lightbulb

The world needs creative entrepreneurs—inventors of ground-breaking concepts or products that can improve lives and change the way we live and work. In a world where industries vanish in a generation and humanity is threatened by environmental catastrophe, human creativity is no longer a commendable talent—it is essential for solving today’s problems.

Generally, business schools foster entrepreneurship by providing business acumen to those who possess characteristics in line with our assumptions about entrepreneurship, such as youth, inherent creativity, and ambition. While teaching business skills is obviously a critical part of the equation, so too is understanding—and supporting—the creative process itself.

Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores, and Hubert L. Dreyfus in Disclosing New Worlds and Roger Martin in The Opposable Mind examine and demystify creativity, most importantly showing that it is a skill that can be learned. This finding paves the way to democratizing creativity and teaching it in those with untapped potential. Instead of providing only one side of the entrepreneurial equation, business schools could provide new competencies in creativity and innovation to experienced individuals with demonstrated business skills.

Our research at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) shows that three key principles can enhance the entrepreneurship curriculum and help cultivate these competencies in students.

1. Resist simplicity, embrace discomfort

Spinosa, Flores, and Dreyfus’ description of creative disclosure and Martin’s theory of integrated thinking both demonstrate that the creative process is an uncomfortable one. Creativity relies on the recognition of disharmony and then immersing oneself in this state of tension long enough for a creative solution to emerge. Integrative thinking allows for the resolution of tension between conflicting ideas by generating a new idea that contains elements of the others but is superior to both.

But most of us give up on the creative process before any solutions can emerge because it makes us anxious, it is difficult, and, as Martin describes it, we avoid complexity and ambiguity by instead seeking the comfort of simplicity.

2. Avoid the heroic stereotypes

The UCT GSB research confirmed the difficulties of the creative experience through interviews with established entrepreneurs and pre-entrepreneurs who had considered a new venture but ultimately decided against it. The study sought to identify the characteristics needed to overcome barriers to entrepreneurship; in short, why certain people push through and persevere with a new venture—finding resolution to creative tension—and others don’t.

Notably, the entrepreneurs in the study did not identify with the heroic entrepreneurial stereotype; they didn’t see themselves as being visionaries, as having a greater risk appetite, or as being particularly driven. In fact, living up to this expectation was actually a deterrent for some potential entrepreneurs who never pursued their ventures.

Those who did become entrepreneurs had the following philosophical characteristics in common: they valued the creative experience itself instead of being goal-oriented about the outcomes; they demonstrated an emergent, experiential, and questioning way of thinking; and they had a strong desire to build or create something of value.

3. Go beyond the business case

The study additionally found that becoming trapped in a traditional cost/benefit analysis—a detached, reductionist mode of thinking generally upheld as the most practical way to make decisions—is a major barrier to entrepreneurship.

Pre-entrepreneurs turn away from potential ventures at this point, whereas entrepreneurs skip the analysis and head straight for the creative process. They seek out the most striking features of the problem they are attempting to solve and experiment until possible outcomes emerge.

Often, entrepreneurship is not a conscious choice; it is a result of becoming so fascinated by a problem that the resolution of it becomes the goal, not the business itself. This full engagement with creativity demonstrates the recognition of creative disharmony and the resourcefulness to resolve it. For example, GSB alumnus Richard Hardiman was so captivated by the problem of removing plastic from the ocean that he invented a waste-collecting drone.

Other entrepreneurs arrive at this point through life-changing events that lead to a shift in perspective and a new understanding of the world, such as J.K. Rowling, Britain’s bestselling author who turned to writing in a time of deep personal crisis.

Supporting Creativity to Foster Entrepreneurship

Knowing these connections now, business schools can provide prompts for a more experiential, emergent style of thinking and expose students to different ways of viewing the world. Often a shift in perspective or a process of questioning closely held beliefs can lead to creative entrepreneurial breakthroughs.

Business schools can also provide coping strategies and practical insight into how to live with creative disharmony. The GSB’s EMBA program, for example, works to develop practical wisdom through mindfulness training and other practices to allow students to experience the unsettling point of creative discord that other entrepreneurs may have arrived at through natural captivation or life events.

Mindfulness, a tool offered by many top-tier business schools, supports the ontological adjustments necessary to build emotional intelligence and allow creativity to emerge. Understanding through doing rather than thinking and through coping with discomfort is critical. This process supports students in questioning their beliefs and opens up new possibilities for understanding the world.

Opportunities for groundbreaking ideas may be around us every day, but those with heightened ontological resourcefulness have a better chance at recognizing creative disharmony and becoming fully engaged with the process of resolving it.

Enabling these opportunities requires a shift in thinking away from a cost/benefit analysis to a style that is open, curious, captivated, wise, and truly creative.

Associate professor Kosheek Sewchurran, acting director of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business in South AfricaKosheek Sewchurran is the acting director of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business and director of the MBA in Executive Management (EMBA) at the school.
Headshot of Paxton Anderson, graduate of the EMBA program at University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. Paxton Anderson is a graduate of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business EMBA program. The research referred to in this article was carried out as part of his dissertation for that degree.