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Are Entrepreneurs Born, Or Are They Taught?

Are Entrepreneurs Born, Or Are They Taught?
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You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Are entrepreneurs born, or are they taught? This is a question I have asked myself frequently during my 12 years of teaching business at universities around the world. For me, this is an important question. In each of my classes, on the first day, I conduct an informal survey. The results are that typically half of my students have the goal of starting their own business right after they graduate, and the majority-about 80%- intend to do so in the next five years. The next question: is post-secondary the place to be if you want to become an entrepreneur?

For me, this question is less straightforward. The clearest analogy I have to answer this is reference the age-old nature versus nurture debate to determine if genetic or environmental factors have a greater influence on behavior. So, the actual question seems to be: are entrepreneurs born, or are they taught? If I ask my students, academic colleagues, and fellow entrepreneurs, “What are the characteristics that make a successful entrepreneur?” The answers are consistently the same: clear vision, drive, energy, risk-taking, ability to motivate people, persistence, intellect, curiosity, listening skills, energy, passion, excitement, creativity, and the like. In my opinion, most of these aforementioned qualities are wired in our DNA, and cannot be taught.

I’ve encountered many young people having these mostly innate traits, they have great ideas for businesses and they truly espouse the entrepreneurial spirit. However, starting and running a business also requires some technical skills – the day-to-day operation skills, like budgeting, financing, selling, marketing- that every entrepreneur must possess. The challenge for universities and professors are to create an environment to make sure that young peoples’ entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t go to waste, while at the same time developing the technical skills to be a successful entrepreneur. Uncertainty, stress, chaos, change are de rigeur in a startup and students must learn to deal with it if they want to become entrepreneurs. As my Experiential Simulations co-founder, Dr. James Bowen, has reminded me: “I have been a serial entrepreneur. The first few times, I wasn’t very successful, but the more I went at it, the better I became, and now we have a successful business. I learned through the process.” This process contains millions of variables and these variables or connecting those dots can be put together only through personal experience.

Today, virtually every institution of higher education offers a business degree. Most business curriculums are based on the classic U.S. business education model developed in the early part of the 20th century, when the United States started to become industrialized. Students are taught technical and functional areas to manage existing businesses, to become general managers, in a standard, safe, stable environment. This is very appropriate for a career at an established company or at a state institution, but not for a startup. 

According to the latest Ewing Marion Kauffmann Foundation’s State of Entrepreneurship report, there is more entrepreneurship education available than ever before, even starting as early as elementary school, but the positive effects are yet to be confirmed. At Babson College in the U.S., 100% of the students are required to take entrepreneurship courses, and 10-15% actually start a business post graduation. At the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, 70% of incoming undergraduates surveyed expresses an interest in entrepreneurship, and more than 20% expected to start a company while still in school. MIT claims that their entrepreneurial impact is such that if the active companies founded by MIT graduates formed an independent nation, their revenues would make that nation at least the 17th largest economy in the world.

In Europe, I have come across a couple of very interesting approaches to entrepreneurship education. The first approach is the Venture Creation Program, an experiential, action-based program whereby students, throughout their university studies, create real-life ventures as an important part of their entrepreneurship education. 18 universities use this methodology. Another creative approach is the Eurotech Alliance, a strategic entrepreneurship partnership among four technical universities. The Technical University of Denmark, Eindhoven University of Technology, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and Munich Technical University conscientiously work together to exchange faculty, students, resources, programs, know-how, to foster entrepreneurship and innovation. The results, according to Marianne Thellerson, Senior Vice President Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Technical University of Denmark, were that last year the Eurotech Alliance launched 51 viable startups alone. The aforementioned universities are the outliers, but more universities can play a greater role to help develop some habits and skills for up-and-coming entrepreneurs during their stay at school.

Some suggestions for students:

1) Take courses only from those who have real-life experience. You wouldn’t want to learn surgery from a person who hadn’t successfully completed many surgeries. Learning entrepreneurship from someone who has never successfully built, managed and even sold a company makes about as much sense. 

2) Take courses that ensure learning by doing. Entrepreneurship is about doing and not about theory. Business plans are great for businesses that have past history. Learning via the case method, or even better, through computer simulations and gamification allow you to develop an entrepreneurial mindset, make mistakes- in a compressed period of time.

3) Learn outside of an educational institution. Outside of class, there are also outstanding entrepreneurship courses via Coursera and edX, from the best entrepreneurship professors in the world that focus on many aspects of entrepreneurship.

4) Network, network, network and seek good advisors. One of the biggest benefits of going to university is the opportunity to build relationships with school peers who could one day turn out to be partners, advisors, or investors. A university’s alumni network is also a great resource for mentors, people who are quite happy to give back to their university and to young people with their contacts, knowledge and experience. 

5) Get an internship at a startup, not at an established company. To become an entrepreneur, one must be around entrepreneurs and an entrepreneurial environment.

So, are entrepreneurs born, or are they taught? My answer is taught, if you’re willing to be a proactive student and a self-taught leader.