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Nature vs. Nurture

Are entrepreneurs born or made?

Starting a business takes drive, talent, initiative and persistence. But is some indefinable essence also involved--a gift that is bestowed at birth upon natural entrepreneurs? A new survey attempts to answer the age-old question of whether entrepreneurs are born or made.

In the survey, commissioned by Northeastern University in league with Entrepreneur magazine, more than 256 people shared their insights into what inspired them to become entrepreneurs. "We conducted the survey to discover how people were thinking about entrepreneurship," says Paul Zavracky, dean of the School of Technological Entrepreneurship at Boston's Northeastern. "[It] suggests that a pretty even mix of people feel they were born or made."

A whopping 42.3 percent of respondents believe their inspiration came from within--that they were personally responsible for their success. "When I talk to entrepreneurs, most of them tell me they believe there's something in their nature that made them entrepreneurs," says Zavracky. Meanwhile, 22.1 percent and 18.6 percent of those surveyed said their biggest inspiration came from family or a successful entrepreneurial peer, respectively.

Respondents were also very clear about risk taking. Asked if they considered themselves risk-takers when making business decisions, 45.5 percent said yes, while 43.1 percent said they were somewhat cautious. The consensus, says Zavracky, is that "we are willing to take some risks, but we're not stupid. We're not going to bet the farm on something [if] we don't have evidence it'll be successful."

Entrepreneurs aren't impervious to fear, though. While 23 percent said they had no fear that their first venture wouldn't succeed, 55.2 percent said they had some fear but were confident in their ideas and skills.

Even if you don't have those particular skills instinctively, Zavracky notes that entrepreneurship education today, with its focus on hands-on training and expertise from professors with entrepreneurial backgrounds, can definitely teach the key skills that business owners need. Entrepreneurs in training can also learn by observing how other business owners deal with core issues. "Education can play an important role," says Zavracky, "especially if the educational program offers the experiential element and balances the business and technical sides of the equation."

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This article was originally published in the May 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Nature vs. Nurture.

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