Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made?

I'm a student doing research on entrepreneurship. I recently came across this sentence: "Entrepreneurs are born, not made." What is your opinion on this? —M.B., Singapore

My opinion is that one does not have to be a "born entrepreneur" to succeed, but it certainly helps. Innate tendencies seem to make certain people more likely to take risks, more able to identify and act on promising business opportunities, and more open to new experiences. We've all known extroverted people who revel in marketing and selling, activities that successful business owners must master. Individuals who do not share these traits can certainly develop them, but they will have to work harder than those for whom such traits come naturally.

My opinion aside, however, your "chicken and egg" question has recently been tackled scientifically in studies of twins (both identical, who share 100 percent of their genes, and fraternal, who share about 50 percent of their genes). Scott Shane, my fellow columnist and the A. Malachi Mixon III Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Case Western Reserve University, participated with several colleagues in the research. In academic articles and his book, Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders, (Oxford University Press, 2010), Shane says that the tendency toward entrepreneurship is about 48 percent "heritable," meaning influenced by genetic factors.

Does this mean that people born without a family history or natural tendency toward entrepreneurship should shelve their dreams and stay in their cubicles? Absolutely not.

Pursuing a Passion

"From what I have seen in my nearly 20 years' experience with the Entrepreneurs' Organization, anyone anywhere has the opportunity to build a business as long as they have a passion, an attitude of never giving up, and valuable mentors that can complement their skill sets," says Dean Lindal, the organization's vice-president.

Longtime entrepreneurial consultant John J. Rooney, managing director of Capital Partners IBG in Manhattan Beach, Calif., agrees: "In my experience working with hundreds of entrepreneurs and teaching on the faculty at the University of Southern California's entrepreneur program, it is clear that much of entrepreneurship can be successfully learned. However, it is also clear that people who take positive action and are focused and committed and continue on despite some negative feedback or setbacks have skill sets and personality traits that can be inborn or learned."

Moreover, the very traits that lead naturally to entrepreneurship can have negative flip sides. "The fact is, most entrepreneurs fail at what they try to do. They fail because they rely too heavily on their innate skills and not enough on learned skills," says John Delmatoff, an executive coach based in Murrieta, Calif.

He often coaches entrepreneurs who chase every good idea they run across. "They focus their often limited resources on too many ideas simultaneously, none of which gets adequate attention, and the idea fails," Delmatoff says. "Or the entrepreneur gets bored early in the idea development stage and starts looking for another idea to develop."

Other Factors

Other factors may be just as important as entrepreneurial traits, Rooney says. He says a survey from a business training program he worked in at the University of Southern California shows that 87 percent of successful entrepreneurs start companies in niches where they already have business experience. People who get formal training are much more likely to succeed than those who fly by the seat of their pants. "I've seen students do very well even if they don't have the flamboyant personality that we expect from entrepreneurs. They can learn how to sell even if they are uncomfortable with it or have cultural challenges," he says.

Optimism and persistence, perhaps the two most essential entrepreneurial traits, can be intentionally practiced, says David Weiman, a management psychologist in suburban Philadelphia and a psychology professor at Strayer University. He recommends Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, which provides step-by-step tips for improving one's ability to overcome obstacles and succeed in tough times, and Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence. The latter book, Weiman says, "seems to suggest that emotional competencies—such as self-awareness or the ability to build bonds, for example—can be learned by anyone who wants to improve in those areas."

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