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Recommendations for Hungarian Higher Education

Mark Marich (GEW global)

Hungary,United States of America

Oct 20, 2012

The following post is a guest contribution from Daniel Szabo, a young Hungarian entrepreneur working out of the GEW Global offices in Washington, DC.

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Daniel Szabo

Thanks to the Global Entrepreneurship Week office in Washington, D.C., I had the privilege of attending the 2012 Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers Conference (GCEC) where I was surrounded by respected professors of entrepreneurship from the United States, directors of centers for entrepreneurship and other members of the international community who are active in this field. As opposed to these prominent participants, my perspective on the topic is shaped by different influences, as I am a business school graduate from the millennial generation (CEMS Masters in International Management, Class of 2013). I am also actively building the Hungarian entrepreneurial movement by co-founding and operating a student-run multi-disciplinary club--the Kairos Society Hungary-- and am also affiliated with existing initiatives supporting new firm creation in Hungary, such as the Young Entrepreneurs Association (FIVOSZ) and the European Entrepreneurship Foundation. I decided to gather my thoughts on the topic to give guidance to those interested in acting on some of the initiatives presented, and to share the ideas from representatives of the world’s leading institutions with Hungary and generally with CEE countries that were severely underrepresented at GCEC.

To get a clear context on the culture that is dominant in the primarily targeted geographical area, I would like to highlight some features of the Hungarian entrepreneurial ecosystem: In Hungary, the direct translation of the word entrepreneur (vállakozó) has a negative connotation; people often associate it with tax avoidance and disingenuous business practices. Entrepreneurship, as known by America or the Western world, has existed legally for a mere two and a half decades. Widespread disinterest is only slowly being dissipated as the years pass. The revolutionary development of communication and the accessibility of information aids this process as do the new global trends which reach an ever broader audience. Campaigns like Global Entrepreneurship Week and the unified efforts of NGOs, universities and “evangelists” help tremendously in bringing closer the startup and small and medium-sized enterprise scene of Hungary to the parts of the world where global entrepreneurship is more developed. History has proven that, equipped with the right tools and in a generally supportive environment, Hungarians can be in the forefront of innovation (ballpoint pen, A-bomb, hologram, Rubick’s cube and the list could go on). Therefore with my professors, fellow students and friends throughout the country we are not going to let this reputation fade away. The commercial application of groundbreaking inventions is now in our hands. If formal education prepares students for the challenge, more and more of us will keep on surprising the world with success stories in a variety of fields.

What lessons from the 2012 GCEC do I suggest Hungarian universities embrace? My overall impression is that the schools that are most successful are ones which pay attention to trends, adapt to their market and tailor their program around the capabilities of their institutions and local communities while keeping student needs in mind. Students usually go to universities with an open mind. Therefore the primary goal of the school in developing courses should be to transmit the message that while most of the subjects they take teach them how to ‘get a job’, entrepreneurship practice will equip them with skills of ‘job creation’ for themselves and others. A to-the-point sales pitch is essential, but the following advice should be helpful in keeping interest in the courses and educating future entrepreneurs who have the same tools as those gained in world class programs:

  1. Reshape the curriculum to embrace new trends, experiment! (After all this is what you expect from the students)
    With practically free access to unimaginable amounts of information from any part of the globe, institutions no longer only compete with each other but also with a wealth of global information. These other sources are out there are downloadable from the internet, free self-help groups, Startup Weekends and so on. The traditionally bureaucratic university environment that might hinder change should not stop professors from adjusting course content. Who said you cannot organize an idea fair on campus and give your students’ bonus points for participating? Why can’t you invite a Google employee as a guest lecturer who can introduce your class to the use of Google Adwords or Google Analytics? Not to mention that co-working spaces or business incubators provide ideal off-campus locations for lecturing with dozens of living startup examples working in front of the eyes of your students.
  2. Teach as much about pivoting as about business planning
    Overly focusing the curriculum on the planning phase, when young entrepreneurs are working ‘on the business’ and not ‘in the business’ can be a mistake in the era of lean startups when the most successful companies start off at the first possible moment and figure out the specificities on the road. There are many examples of a service turning out to be completely different from what it was originally planned; in hindsight the original business plan falls in the same category as a fairytale. The word ‘pivot’ is not recognized adequately in the entrepreneurial vocabulary in Hungarian education. I believe, keeping an eye out for potentially game changing transitions would multiply the resilience of startups and, more importantly, help students keep to a flexible approach after the launch of their venture.
  3. Work hand in hand with everyone who is willing to help you – let it be entrepreneur or committed student
    Successful academic programs have serial entrepreneurs on their advisory boards or as part of their faculty. At Georgetown University, enterprising students created the course curriculum on their own and started teaching it with the help of guest entrepreneurs before an official program was established. Outstanding programs appear to be bases on a carefully crafted cooperation between academics, practicing entrepreneurs and people from related industries (venture capital, consulting) as well as returning students. The unique blend of institutionalized knowledge and street smarts, topped up with real life stories, not only attract attention from prospective students, but also give a vital differentiating factor to the university. Schools need to illustrate how people from diverse backgrounds can complement each other’s strengths and the best example could be the university’s own faculty. Partner with different stakeholders and create a good team.
  4. Help the students to get their hands dirty, encourage them to try and try again
    Real entrepreneurs often admit that their first ideas were failures, but without that experience they would not have made their next company successful. Hungarian educators have to take the concept of ‘trial and error’ based learning just as seriously as professors do in the States. In the Baylor Business Entrepreneurship course at the Hankamer School of Business, students are expected to ship their first products or launch their service 100 days after the start of the program and the ultimate goal is to be profitable at the end of the semester. Students are expected to form groups and these teams then receive $5000 seed funding on day one to facilitate the creation of their business. The message is quite obvious: take your ideas to the market and let your customers validate your endeavors rather than hammer an often misleading spreadsheet stacked up with assumptions for months before even attempting the launch. Acknowledging the basic differences in the financing of education between the U.S. and Hungary, it is understandable that universities in the latter are hardly in a position to fund the students trying their wings. Locally adapted approaches could still be viable.
  5. Build an alumni network and raise funds for the upcoming generations
    The lack of funding in entrepreneurship programs could be tackled if the alumni networks were mobilized to help the cause. There is enormous untapped potential in contacting a school’s alumni, but to exercise it a culture change is required first. This might again be a regional specificity, but guarding a close connection with one’s alma mater is not a widespread practice – as of now! Current professors have all tools in their hands to change this; first of all they spend long hours every week in their classes where they can educate the current students on the importance of giving back. The entrepreneurship centers usually look out for success stories amongst alumnus to write case studies and to invite them as guest lecturers, would it really take so much to ask them for an angel investment in the Class of 2015?

Looking back on the rugged road on which entrepreneurship education in Hungary has trod in the last 25 years, it is no wonder that we need time to surmount some difficulties. Promising changes are underway. By listening to global best practices, we can avoid a number of pitfalls and implement the approaches that have already proven their legitimacy in other parts of the world. We have to remember that there is no one formula for success and therefore localizing methods, course content, and means of financing is a common responsibility. When I saw Professor Jeffrey Cornwall smiling while he talked about his book being available in Hungarian or when the Ohio University delegation told me that they are expecting Charles Simonyi to give a lecture on their campus this year, I was reminded that we do not need to start from scratch, even if there is still a lot to be done back home.

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Daniel Szabo

Daniel is a graduate student of the Corvinus University of Budapest, studying in the CEMS Masters in International Management program. Having worked in the International Atomic Energy Agency, The Boston Consulting Group and Mazars, Daniel now fills an Associate position at the Global Entrepreneurship Week office in Washington D.C. He works with future startup generations in Hungary through the Kairos Society and the Young Entrepreneurs Association (FIVOSZ), globally through the One Young World network. In his free time, Daniel enjoys scuba diving, open water swimming and cycling.

tags: FIVOSZ, GCEC, Kairos Society