Knowledge @ ESCP Europe

Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Entrepreneur: the art of subversion?

How to teach this subversive approach in executive training courses and degree programmes in entrepreneurship?


Sylvain BUREAU
Doctor in Management Science
Associate Professor

Not a day goes by without an event or an article in the press about entrepreneurs changing the world, and we’re not just talking about makeshift set-ups in someone’s basement. The entrepreneurs who have radically changed the world have always disturbed status quos. Steve Jobs, Peter Thiel or even Mark Zuckerberg have all developed subversive practices, resulting in very hostile reactions from the accepted systems, at least at the beginning. The question is how to teach this subversive approach in executive training courses and degree programmes in entrepreneurship?

Finding the answer to this question is key. The need to rethink the existing paradigms and to develop breakthrough innovations represent major challenges for entrepreneurs but also for large companies faced with major social and technical transformations. So how can this be done? When one is a lecturer from a well-established Business School, (in my case, ESCP Europe, the world’s first business school), very quickly it seems impossible to achieve this in a large lecture hall or through simply analyzing case studies.

So what is our answer? To propose an innovative programme that we have named ‘The Improbable’: a programme centered on nurturing a critical mindset through the creation of a piece of art. No particular artistic skills are needed. The workshops led by renowned artists allow students to learn from diverse forms of art: painting, sculpture, cinema and poetry, to name just a few. Students work for three days in teams of 3 – 5 in museums, and workshops in the city, far from their usual classrooms. On the evening of the third day the works of art are put on show at a public exhibit.

Entrepreneur: the art of subversion?

There are many valid reasons for taking this approach. Firstly, creating works of art is an experience which grows you as a person. Secondly, the use of art in a Business School disrupts the habitual order, time, and space and takes people out of their comfort zones so that they are forced to think and act differently. It becomes possible to initiate more subversive content and projects. And, in turn this ‘Improbable’ approach allows us to learn a way of approaching entrepreneurship: we learn to create in uncertain environments with few resources, to transform a vague idea into an embodied 4 dimensional proposition, and to present these concrete projects to a critical audience. This ‘Improbable’ method has shown itself to be successful, as the works of art are often of very high quality regardless of the fact that they have been produced by ‘non artists’ in a matter of hours.

This programme, presented at various international conferences, (Boston, Montreal, Copenhagen, Rome, Rabat, Hanoi…), has now been applied in new ways thanks to the support from the "Entrepreneurship" Chair EY-BNP Paribas and the Umalis Lab. This programme has now been proposed to ESCP Europe full-time degree students and also Executive Education participants following an Innovation and Leadership training programme from the Sacem. The programme has also been offered to women who have been victims of violence (in partnership with the charity ‘Led By Her’). Thanks to the ‘Improbable’ programme, women from very diverse social backgrounds, have created strong and meaningful works of art. They have created so as to survive and question our world. They have created to enable them to move forwards and to change our world.

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