Shopify offers alternative vision of entrepreneurship education

The leaders of one of Ottawa’s hottest tech companies believe there is a better way to teach students about how to be a part of a successful startup.

Over the weekend, Shopify chief operating officer Harley Finkelstein took the stage at the One Young World conference hosted in Ottawa. Mr. Finkelstein gave the keynote address at an event aimed at answering why schools were failing to adequately prepare students for the job market.

“I think that if you want to be an entrepreneur, and you’re relying on school to teach you that, you’re going to be very disappointed,” he told the crowd of international youth delegates.

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Mr. Finkelstein told stories of his own early businesses, a DJing company and two shirt retailers, all three of which he started in school.

He reasoned that while school held great resources for entrepreneurs – like-minded classmates, professors, and useful campus workspaces, to name a few – the courses and structure of his education sometimes hindered, rather than facilitated, his ventures. The inflexible nature of his courses, for example, sometimes meant choosing between meeting with a client and passing a class.

“In hindsight, starting a company as a student, is the best time to do it. But not because of the curriculum. Actually, despite the curriculum,” Mr. Finkelstein concluded.

He’s not the first executive at the rapidly growing commerce firm to offer an unconventional take on the education system.

Shopify (TSX: SH) co-founder Tobi Lütke publicly shared his experience with dropping out of school when he was 16 years old.

“School was not for me,” he wrote in a 2013 op-ed that praised apprenticeship programs. “Rightly or wrongly, I felt like I was wasting my time there and my real education started when I came home.”

But far from offering critiques from the sideline, Shopify is helping to launch its own program to give university a more hands-on education.

The firm is partnering with Carleton University to offer students in its Bachelor of Computer Science program a multi-year internship with Shopify.

Starting this fall, 11 Carleton students will split their time between the university campus and Shopify’s downtown headquarters. In addition to taking electives and core courses at the school, students will join teams working on real-world projects at Shopify. The firm is also compensating students for their labour, as well as helping to cover the costs of tuition.

“We designed this program with Carleton to give students the perfect mix of hands-on experience, self-paced learning and theoretical foundations. They will have the opportunity over the next couple of years to learn and make changes to Shopify that will affect millions of people,” said Jean-Michel Lemieux, Shopify’s senior vice president of engineering, in a statement.

During the weekend conference, Mr. Finkelstein was joined onstage by a number of international speakers who discussed the importance of universal access to education and employing technology to prepare students around the world for the job market.

Wasim Abu Salem, an Israeli entrepreneur, discussed how his company, Loop, provides students in university with scholarships to mentor younger students in the basics of coding apps and websites. When the younger students reach university, they become the mentors, thus completing the loop.

One Young World is an annual summit for international youth aged 18-30, aimed at promoting positive change and social enterprise.

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