A Training Gap For Entrepreneurs

 In Entrepreneurship Programs, Strategy, Sustainability Strategy, Thinking About

Are entrepreneurs getting the training they need to be future proof? Most of them aren’t, even though sustainability strategy planning has become a key component of small business customers including large companies, governmental agencies, and even the military. With customer preference and demand for sustainable products, services and suppliers is on the rise, sustainability training is rarely offered or recommended to entrepreneurs – the next generation of business leaders.

Is there interest in and demand for sustainable small businesses?

The answer is, yes. Intuit’s 2020 Report predicts that sustainability – environmental, social, and economic considerations in business decision making – will be a “competitive requirement for small business within the next ten years, moving from social novelty to business necessity.”  And, Michael Porter, founder of Harvard’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, contends that business has undergone an evolution in its relationship with society, shifting from philanthropy to corporate social responsibility to providing products and services that address social problems.

What’s behind the increased interest and demand?

Due to easy access of information through the internet and other media channels, there’s a growing awareness of the dire sustainability challenges that the world faces. These include climate change, pollution, non-recyclable waste streams, environmental degradation, diminishing natural resources, corruption, human right violations, and racial, gender and economic inequalities. More and more people, both consumers and business owners, believe that businesses should conduct their activities in ways that reduce their contribution to these challenges and even help solve them.

Data gathered in Nielsen’s 2015 Global Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility shows increasing interest in consumers’ preferences and interests in sustainable products and services as well as their CSR activities:

  • 66% of Millennials & 72% of Generation Z are willing to pay more for sustainable products & services.
  • A company’s CSR commitments can sway consumer’s product purchases: environment (45%), social value (43%), & local community (41%).

While data about preferences does not always correlate with purchases made, the trends are clear that people increasingly do care about how business is developed and managed. This means that developing a business with sustainability in mind makes sense to be future proof and that entrepreneurs should receive training that provides them the knowledge and skills to do so.

How has the entrepreneurship training industry responded?

In 2016, research conducted in planning for our program, Scale it Up! Sustainability Training for Women Entrepreneurs (STWE), indicated that few entrepreneurs who seek training and support are offered or receive sustainability strategy training. In the United States, of the 90 business accelerators and incubators that received funding by the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2015, only three local programs provided triple bottom line cross-industry business training as part of their main programming and eight provided either a focus in industry-specific sustainability (like cleantech or food) or social enterprise.  Of the 105 local U.S. Women’s Business Development Centers (WBDCs), only one had affiliation with a green business certification program and one provided two short sustainability workshops in 2015. This means that, of the 140,700 women who received training through U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA)-affiliated training programs and centers, only a very small percentage were exposed to sustainability strategy concepts.

In higher educational institutions, the number of sustainability programs and courses are increasing. However, it is still a niche training in most business and entrepreneurship programs. The subject is offered as a single elective, a specialization certificate, or as a separate green or sustainability M.B.A. track. There is also a growing trend to offer a social entrepreneurship or impact entrepreneurship track, which effectively siloes “business for good” training and development from traditional business rather than integrating them.

The reality is that most entrepreneurs who seek training and support don’t receive or even get offered sustainability strategy training.

Why aren’t entrepreneurs offered sustainability strategy training?

Entrepreneurs rely on expert mentors, coaches and trainers to tell them what they need to learn. Most entrepreneurship professionals haven’t been taught about the importance and benefits of sustainability training for entrepreneurs; therefore, they don’t recommend or offer it. They are trained in traditional business methods and those methods have been relied upon for many years. Here are reasons given by entrepreneurship educators when I’ve asked them about what they think about training entrepreneurs in sustainability:

  • Sustainability is a niche market. Entrepreneurs interested will seek out the training.
  • Entrepreneurs have too many things to think about as it is – they don’t have time.
  • It’s too much work and too costly.
  • It’s not important for small business.
  • Small businesses are not the problem – it’s the larger companies.
  • Entrepreneurs are not asking for training in sustainability.
Are these reasons valid?  Perhaps, but here are my quick responses to them:
  • If sustainability training was offered to entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs would use the skills they learn to build sustainable businesses. The niche market would become mainstream.
  • Once entrepreneurs acquire sustainability knowledge and skills, the process is integrated into the DNA of the business and won’t take much additional time.
  • Sustainability at times costs more; at times, less. Energy and material costs can be reduced. Customers and business might increase. It depends.
  • Small businesses supply and support larger companies; they can be part of the problem and offer solutions.
  • If entrepreneurs are offered and recommended sustainability training regularly by the professionals they rely on for expertise and support, they’ll ask for it.

Education is slow to change because they teach as they’ve been trained. Educational psychologist Stephanie Owens, Ph.D., who examines traditional and new pedagogies believes that “…we are not going to be able to implement any true attempts in sustainability education without concomitant change in the way we teach teachers.” She is possibly right. The hope is that entrepreneurship educators will be exposed to concepts of sustainability through earlier education, their own business training or because of their own interests so that they learn of its value for entrepreneurs.

What can be done to accelerate filling this training gap?

STWE, the nonprofit program that I’ve founded, aims to popularize and provide sustainability strategy training to women entrepreneurs that is affordable and accessible. Initial programs will be in Chicago and Michigan. Other organizations that provide triple-bottom-line business training do exist and will continue to evolve. To name a few, there’s the Green Garage, a co-working space in Detroit, MI, the Sustainable Business Network, a nonprofit in Madison, WI, Sustainable Startups, a business incubator in Salt Lake City, UT, and the Good Work Institute, funded by Etsy.org’s Foundation in Hudson Valley, NY.

To further spur popularity of sustainability training, it will also be important to engage leading universities and research firms that can gather data and provide analysis about sustainability training for entrepreneurs, its effect on development of sustainable small businesses, and if and how sustainability strategy training contributes to small-business success.

If entrepreneurs do receive training, will it really help them?

Providing the knowledge and skills to integrate triple-bottom-line strategies can help entrepreneurs become successful leaders in their markets and industry. Plus, they’ll have the opportunity to gain a competitive edge, attract and retain top employee talent, open new markets, expand business opportunities, build public trust and customer loyalty and Increase positive brand image.

There’s an additional benefit that comes with building a sustainable business. A sense of pride and satisfaction that one’s work is impacting the world positively. As they say in traditional business, it’s a “Win/Win” situation. Who can argue with that?

SWTE is conducting a survey for women entrepreneurs to gather information about their awareness, knowledge and interests in sustainability, sustainability training and consumer and small business customer trends related to sustainability. Please take our survey if you are a woman entrepreneur!

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