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What the military teaches us about training entrepreneurs

Boot camps have their history rooted in the military where, from the 1900s, countries at war sought effective and efficient ways to train up their civilians into soldiers. This has become a sort of art, with each country’s military designing programmes that would ultimately ‘create’ the type of soldier they seek to have fighting on their side. The higher the quality of training, the higher the quality of soldier and of course the more likelihood for success in the battlefield.

A newer use for boot camps in recent years, has been to train up a different kind of solider – the entrepreneur. Many entrepreneur support programmes have, in their design, some kind of boot camp to train their entrepreneur recruits. These are termed many things, Launchpad, accelerator camps, boot camps, start-up camps etc. but are, in essence, all the same thing with different designs but same purpose – to create and train up entrepreneurs in order to decrease high unemployment rates through job creation.

With so many boot camp ‘trained’ entrepreneurs, is it not surprising then that the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) still records our continent’s Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) at rates substantially low in comparison to the world’s average? It is clear that the efforts and monetary expenditure, like South Africa’s R9 billion Jobs Fund, spent in designing, developing and delivering entrepreneurial boot camps and other entrepreneur development programmes are not translating into the economic activity that we expect to see, where unemployment decreases due to jobs created by the new entrepreneurs.

In order to turn this around, Entrepreneur Support Organisations (ESOs) such as ourselves, should seriously consider the flaws in the current design of entrepreneur development and support programmes and work earnestly to design programmes that will ensure we produce entrepreneurs that take initiative, have high leadership skills, are ethical and accountable and are strategic thinkers with a vision for Africa.

When making a quick analysis of military boot camps in order to draw lessons we could use, we learn that Military camps are specifically designed to achieve a particular goal, and the goal is clear – recruit civilians and graduate soldiers. Even in that design, they understand that basic training alone cannot create soldiers ready for battle, and as such, each soldier that completes basic training, goes into further development at the individual advanced training camps. Militaries understand that the creation of a real soldier, is never a once off event and required the involvement of other soldiers of higher ranks. As best practice, ESOs should therefore:

  • Have specific goals for their boot camps. These goals could anything from developing business plans, developing business ideas or starting a project business to simulate real business etc. Whatever it is, as long as it is specific. The more specific and realistic it is, the less disappointed entrepreneur hopefuls we will have, who came in expecting more than they receive.
  • Recruit the right profile of people for your programme, based on your programme objectives. Military camps recruit using very specific criteria which include physical fitness, academic success and emotional intelligence. If your programme is specifically designed to develop business ideas, you may want to target entrepreneur hopefuls who have or do not have ideas instead of established entrepreneurs who are at a stage where they are seeking growth funding.
  • Employ entrepreneurs to work with and train the entrepreneur hopefuls. A key characteristics in training for many vocations, such as medicine, is the training and mentorship of student doctors by registered doctors. Militaries use the same strategies by having Generals train the recruits. This practice works and it should be adopted in the entrepreneur development space.
  • Finally, ESOs should design their programmes in a manner that provides further support to the entrepreneur through additional support services such as incubation. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It will take time to build solid entrepreneurs who will create the level of impact needed to solve Africa’s problems. The creation of these entrepreneurs should be seen more as a marathon than a sprint, where only quality runners finish the race.

When we follow these four basic principles of military boot camp design, we will develop programmes for entrepreneurs that support their creation, growth and development. We will be creating entrepreneur soldiers that have a fighting chance in the field because their knowledge and skills meet the demand at hand. More so, we will not need to be re-training or recycling the same group of entrepreneurs in our support programmes, because once a soldier is trained, they are a soldier no matter where they go.

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