Since 1985, classes on entrepreneurship at the university level have increased 20x in the US, which poses the question: Are entrepreneurs born or made?
Brian Morgan, professor of entrepreneurship at Cardiff Metropolitan University, says, “In general, about 40% of entrepreneurial skills can be thought of as ‘in the DNA.’ But 60% of the competencies required to create a successful and sustainable business—such as technical and financial expertise—have to be acquired.” He suggests that these additional skills can be gained through college courses, work experience in a relevant sector and networking skills.
Professor Morgan adds that entrepreneurs who invest in training in this way “are more likely to pay attention to detail and to place their start-up on a more secure footing.”
Recent research from the London School of Economics suggests that to be a successful entrepreneur, you must have the “e-gene,” which consists of the following six different characteristics:
- Coming from a difficult background (such as being a minority or disadvantaged)
- Having a disability
- Being a risk-lover and optimist
- Possessing an independent spirit
- Having a social distinction
- Needing achievement and power
According to Chris Coleridge from the London School of Economics, a combination of these six traits can be identified in all successful entrepreneurs. For example, from his research, he has identified that global entrepreneur Richard Branson has five of the six traits: he is an independent risk-lover and optimist who has a disability, social distinction, and the need for achievement and power.
Coleridge says, “Having researched entrepreneurs’ personalities and traits, most of the successful ones possess an effectual logic—an approach to solving a problem that starts not with the desired end but with the available means, limiting the risk of failure.”
Serial entrepreneur Jonathan Richards shares similar ideas, believing that an entrepreneurial mindset is the sum of all experiences rather than something innate. His opinion is that “an entrepreneur is created when an idea comes together with a person who is happy to balance creativity and management; understand, live with and manage risk; evangelise the idea in the face of negativity; and stay responsive and positive.”
Successful technology entrepreneur Alan Sugar has a different opinion. Alan has also been extremely vocal on this subject, saying, “It doesn’t matter which business school you go to or what books you read; you can’t just go and buy a bottle of entrepreneurial juice. Entrepreneurial spirit is something that you’re born with.” With a net worth of over $1 billion, a successful global business and an entrepreneurial career spanning more than 50 years, Alan has a wealth of experience in entrepreneurship starting from selling aerials from his car as a teenager.
Other entrepreneurs argue that while there may be some personality traits that entrepreneurs share, it’s how these skills are nurtured that makes a difference. After all, people are educated from an early age in a range of different subjects that they have no experience in, so why can’t they learn entrepreneurship too?
Entrepreneur Ben Cook believes the above to be true; he is one of the co-founders of a series of children’s books that promotes positive role models in entrepreneurship. He firmly believes that entrepreneurship can be learned. Ben says, “When we start talking about teaching someone an attitude to risk and how to be driven, that’s where the process falls down. These elements are going to be learnt through experiences, and through doing things.” He doesn’t believe that entrepreneurship can actually be taught, and he believes that schools almost teach children out of entrepreneurship.
Returning to the statistic about the increase in university-level entrepreneurship courses, there are many entrepreneurs who believe in further study into entrepreneurship to give them a good grounding and understanding in all areas of business. Even the most natural entrepreneur can benefit from refining their skills, particularly in areas like accountancy, creating business plans and marketing. At the beginning of a startup, an entrepreneur may need to take on varied roles while they get everything off the ground.
However, with this in mind, it may be that rather than studying entrepreneurship, they might be better studying some key business skills to help them with the day-to-day running of a business and enhancing their natural aptitude for entrepreneurship.
James Hardy, head of Europe at online marketplace Alibaba.com, adds that too many university courses don’t teach entrepreneurship at all. “MBAs that focus on back-end functions, including finance, HR, operations management and marketing budgets, are outdated models geared towards management of bigger existing businesses that simply do not tackle the reality of developing a startup business,” he says. “Startup businesses should be concerned with the question, ‘Can we build a sustainable business around this set of products or services?’ Traditional MBA courses rarely address this question at all.”
Each entrepreneur—and their situation—is different and a combination of nature and nurture seems to be the right approach. It seems that entrepreneurship can be taught, but success only happens if the raw skills are there in the first place. To succeed, entrepreneurs need a mix of skills that can be learned and that people may have a natural aptitude for, such as…
- High intellect. There doesn’t need to be an academic background, but the ability to analyse information, communicate well and make decisions can only benefit an entrepreneur.
- Vision and good instincts. Innovation and imagination can’t necessarily be taught, and neither can “street smarts” and good instincts, but they can be shaped and the right people can be brought in.
- Drive, passion and excitement. This is something else that is difficult to teach and is more likely to come naturally. You’re either passionate about what you’re doing or you’re not.
- Persistence and resilience. Keeping going and bouncing back is an important part of entrepreneurship that is key to success.
- Not scared to take risks. This is another thing that can’t be taught but is extremely important in entrepreneurship.
- Good communication. Communication can always be refined and taught as needed.
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