Can an entrepreneurial spirit be taught or is it innate?

Written by
Emily Sexton-Brown

29 Nov 2016

29 Nov 2016 • by Emily Sexton-Brown

Rule breakers

Etienne Krieger
Affiliate professor of entrepreneurship and innovation, HEC Paris business school

Some people are gifted with an entrepreneurial mindset, and an outstanding ability to execute new ideas, for example, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Richard Branson. To be a successful, innovative entrepreneur, you have to think “out of the box” as much as possible. Some entrepreneurs love this challenge, whereas others are better off with stable benchmarks. 

It’s not a question of technical skill, which can be built through experience or education, but more an issue of creativity, which may also be developed through education. 

This kind of difference exists between very talented craftsmen and true artists. Some people are ultimate technical experts but are unable to think differently or break the rules, which is the characteristic of a true entrepreneur.

Irrelevant backgrounds

Paul Kirkham
Researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity, Nottingham University Business School

Exactly what constitutes an entrepreneur has long been a source of debate. The public tends to conceive entrepreneurs as being dynamic and vastly successful businesswomen or businessmen, most likely those operating in a high-tech sector. A more grounded definition is that anyone with the ability to recognise opportunities and deliver value through invention and innovation qualifies as an entrepreneur. 

This being so, how do we identify entrepreneurs? 

Our research has repeatedly shown the cognitive capacity that enables individuals to make novel connections and foresee prospects and advantages within business settings can be developed in anyone. Background is irrelevant. We’re not talking about an intangible, inexplicable gift bestowed on a lucky few. Appropriate training – including interacting with suitable mentors, lessons in how to surmount obstacles to innovation and the freedom to ‘bounce ideas around’ – can genuinely boost creativity and the capability to appreciate and maximise opportunities. Effectively, one’s ‘mental frame’ can be honed.

Context is critical

Gloria Moss
Professor of management and marketing, Buckinghamshire New University

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an entrepreneur as a person who “sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit”. In the same way that people have questioned whether leaders are born or made, the vital role of the entrepreneur in society has fuelled a debate about the role that training and education can play in creating this powerhouse of activity. 

Academics can be found who argue for both sides of the ‘nature/nurture’ debate with some arguing for a genetic component, one essentially driving risk aversion, and the other arguing for a role for education in fine-tuning the entrepreneur’s skills. Of course, there is right on both sides and a combination of both will help shape the entrepreneur. However, context is also critical; for example, whether the culture surrounding an entrepreneur is willing to embrace and facilitate their new idea, product or invention.

Instantaneous results

Dr Spinder Dhaliwal
Reader in entrepreneurship and director of postgraduate programmes, Westminster Business School 

Are entrepreneurs born or bred? It may be expected that you would be more entrepreneurial if you grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. This is not always the case. Snapchat founder, Evan Spiegel, was not born into a family of entrepreneurs; his parents were lawyers in Los Angeles, and he later went to Stanford University, where he developed Snapchat as a class project. 

The skills young people have today are vital. Young entrepreneurs are more tech savvy, having grown up with the internet, smartphones and the instantaneous nature of social networking. They expect instant results. Can attributes such as risk taking, drive and determination be acquired? I don’t think so. What you can do as an entrepreneur is surround yourself with people who possess the capabilities and traits you may lack. Self-awareness is key. 

It’s amazing that some still argue it’s not possible to teach entrepreneurship, that it’s all about personality and psychological characteristics. They argue the requisite talent and temperament needed to be an entrepreneur cannot be learned. This is true for all professional occupations. No-one would dispute that it’s possible to learn medicine, law or engineering, but there are doctors, lawyers and engineers who have natural talent and others who do not. 

Similar reasoning can be applied to entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs. There is no doubt that it is possible to educate and train individuals for entrepreneurship, but – as with the other disciplines we mentioned – you cannot be certain that these individuals have natural talent, nor can you guarantee their success.

Myth busting

Professor Andrew Godley and Dr Norbert Morawetz
Centre for Entrepreneurship, Henley Business School

Entrepreneurship comes in many forms: the tech entrepreneur building an empire, the entrepreneur who re-invigorates their corporate division, the junior nurse who launches a policy, the social entrepreneur who makes a difference. Some start early, but the average age at start-up in the UK is 40. 

At the Henley Centre for Entrepreneurship, we see the full range of entrepreneurial people, from millennials to MBAs. A few know they want to be entrepreneurs, but most discover that being exposed to entrepreneurial ideas will help them in their career and in life. Scholarly research concludes the innate entrepreneur is a myth. The importance of genes is overstated, we understate the potential to develop ourselves.

Cultivating taste

Dr Ben Spigel 
Chancellor’s Fellow in entrepreneurship, University of Edinburgh Business School 

The same characteristics that make a fantastic entrepreneur — the ambition to grow, the vision to see an untapped opportunity, the willingness to risk everything, and the charisma to bring others on board to support you — are the attributes you’d need to be a criminal mastermind. Entrepreneurs need more than their skills and ambition. Entrepreneurs need a highly refined sense of taste, to separate a good business idea from a hot buzz-word or to know a growing market from a shrinking one. Like taste in fashion or art, this cannot be taught but it can be cultivated. And like taste in fashion, we’re not born with good taste when it comes to business, but we develop it by experimenting and making mistakes. 

We can teach entrepreneurial skills in the classroom and help cultivate ambition and self-confidence, but the most successful serial entrepreneurs and investors will always have a refined taste for what makes a good business. This isn’t something we’re born with or that we learn in the classroom, it’s developed by going out and doing something.

Influential environments

Dr Sankalp Chaturvedi
Associate professor of organisational behaviour and leadership, Imperial College Business School 

It’s certainly true that genetics play a role in the development of behaviours such as leadership and entrepreneurship. The question is not whether it’s down to ‘nature or nurture’, it’s actually a result of both. As with IQ and personality, leadership/ entrepreneurship behaviours have elements with which individuals are born. However, the majority of variances in these dimensions can be taught to individuals. Research has found that environment plays a bigger role in development of entrepreneurship than genetics. 

Using a Swedish sample of identical and same-sex fraternal twins, we found that there is a strong genetic influence on females’ tendency to become entrepreneurs. Of all the personality traits, extroversion and neuroticism helps the genetic influences on women’s tendency to become entrepreneurs. In contrast, males show a large shared-environment influence and negligible genetic influence on their tendency to become entrepreneurs and extroversion helps men’s tendency to become entrepreneurs. 

So, it is our evolving environment that actually plays the most significant role in determining whether someone will become an entrepreneur. Choices made regarding the type of school we attend, the subjects to which we are drawn and in which we excel and the choices we make regarding university – are the greatest influences on our career choices, as are our relationships with parents, teachers, family and friends.

Experience over education

Nigel Lockett
Professor of entrepreneurship at Lancaster University Management School

With a 700,000 increase in self-employment since 2008, the UK is rapidly becoming a nation of entrepreneurs, as opposed to shopkeepers. Indeed, freelancing is becoming mainstream and being driven on by the uber-economy. This growth in entrepreneurship has also given rise to 5 million small businesses who in turn now employ over 12 million people (33% of the workforce) and are often seen as the bedrock of an entrepreneurial economy. For many a portfolio career also includes a period of entrepreneurship. The UK Government’s 2014 Enterprise for All report stressed the need to “create lifelong experience of enterprise in education” from primary school to university and beyond.

But can you really teach entrepreneurship?

Well, according to Enterprise Educators UK, it’s a resounding YES. But, then again they would say this, they are the UK’s largest network for enterprise educators representing more than 600 enterprise education professionals. Their purpose is to support their members to “increase the scale, scope and effectiveness of enterprise and entrepreneurship teaching within their organisations.”

Again, Babson College in the US, probably the world’s leading proponent of entrepreneurship education, says YES! In fact, they have made a business out of educating the enterprise educators! They provide annual Symposia for Entrepreneurship Educators which now has over 1,500 alumni of educators worldwide.

My own experience as an entrepreneur and now an academic and educator, confirms a complex mixture of three ingredients, namely i) characteristics people are born with, ii) skills that can be acquired through education and experience and iii) an appreciation of the value of social networking. 
Millennials brought up on social media intrinsically appreciate the latter. And, through experiencing enterprise education, whether at school or university, they can tick two of the boxes. Of course, millennial entrepreneurs still need those entrepreneurial characteristics of: need for achievement, over-optimism; propensity for risk-taking; desire for autonomy; locus of control (or belief you have control over your environment) and creativity. Whilst I accept that some people are born with more of these characteristics than others, experience can bring these out in most of us.