This is the previously unpublished prologue to my article(s) on the Saturday Nation about entrepreneurship and innovation that began running last week.
In the business world, entrepreneurs are similar to rock stars in the music industry: they stand out, and are mostly eccentric and energetic. They are able to move and inspire people towards achieving their goal, and are undoubtedly skilled at what they do. Their success also inspires equal amounts of admiration and contempt, and eternal arguments could occur on whether or not they really deserve all the praise and attention they receive.
Of the many definitions of entrepreneurship in existence, this one provided by Professor Howard Stevenson particularly captures its essence in a charming and succinct manner: “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” Therefore, an entrepreneur is one who pursues an opportunity (usually of the business kind) despite the risks involved.
In the recent past, entrepreneurship has garnered more attention than ever before, with countless researches being carried out to learn the secret behind entrepreneurs’ success: Are entrepreneurs born or made? What sets entrepreneurs apart from others? Can anyone be an entrepreneur? What traits do they have in common?
Nature vs. Nurture
By far the most asked question about entrepreneurs is whether they are born that way, or they develop a knack for entrepreneurship as they grow. Many researchers have made this a topic of study, with a recent study by Scott A. Shane in 2009 finding that entrepreneurship has as much to do with genes as socialization.
In his book “Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Work Life”, Shane quotes his research on rates of entrepreneurship, where he and his team studied pairs of identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genes, and fraternal twins, who share 50 percent of their genes. They found higher rates of shared entrepreneurial tendencies in the identical twins and determined that 30 to 40 percent of the tendency to be an entrepreneur is innate and not taught.
However, the relationship may not be so direct. Inherited genes do transfer personality traits such as extroversion, openness to new experiences and sensation seeking, which are common traits among entrepreneurs. It could be, therefore, that the genes pass on these traits which then lead to their carriers having higher chances of becoming entrepreneurs.
On the other hand, it may be argued that children raised by entrepreneurial parents have higher chances of becoming entrepreneurs themselves due to exposure to the traits that make a good entrepreneur from early on in life. They are able to learn these traits from their parents and have higher chances of becoming entrepreneurs themselves.
Pete Owiti, owner of Pete’s Café & Burrito Haven Restaurant, reckons that entrepreneurship is mainly about interest – the rest can be learned. As long as one has a passionate interest in something, they can become an entrepreneur in the field and acquire the skill set necessary for success.
Ben Lyon, co-founder and director at Kopo Kopo, a startup that enables business owners to accept M-Pesa payments, feels that neither nature nor nurture, on their own, have much to do with entrepreneurship. According to him, entrepreneurs are the kind of people that see a problem as an opportunity. You could either be born with that inclination, or raised to ask questions. Either way, the important quality is an inquisitive mind coupled with a healthy sense of stubbornness.
That said, it is quite difficult to separate nature from nurture. It creates a “chicken or the egg” causality dilemma: does the child born with entrepreneurial tendencies end up becoming an entrepreneur because of his innate talent, or is it because this talent leads to opportunities that make a career in entrepreneurship more likely? Shane says that even if a person has the innate makeup that makes him/her more likely to be an entrepreneur, genes do interact with environmental stimuli.
What makes them tick?
Different entrepreneurs have different traits; they are people after all, and no two people are exactly the same. Entrepreneurs, however, have been found to have some things in common.
According to “Nature or nurture? Decoding the DNA of the entrepreneur”, a report published by Ernst & Young in 2011, at the heart of entrepreneurship, there are two key traits: an opportunistic mindset and a healthy mindset towards risk and failure.
This mirrors the definition of entrepreneurship given by Professor Stevenson exactly. Entrepreneurs tend to see opportunity where others either see none, or utter chaos. Where others see a problem, entrepreneurs view it as an opportunity to provide a solution.
They are also willing to take risks and accept failure. Most people shy away from risks because of the fear of failure. Entrepreneurs, however, are willing to take risks, and possibly fail, in the pursuit of opportunity. It is a gamble; they could either enjoy success in their business ventures, or fail – it is never certain which way things will go.
According to the report, the desire for independence and control is also important. Everyone desires independence and control over their lives. However, entrepreneurs have the tenacity and drive to act on this desire. They go out on their own and pursue their interests.
Other traits that are secondary to the above are passion, a focus on customers and quality, leadership, integrity, innovation, resilience, teamwork and vision. Pete adds that at the heart of every entrepreneur is a dream, and this is the most important thing. An entrepreneur should follow her dreams and have focus – she should not try to be a jack of all trades. She should strive to perfect that one trade.
Ben opines that self-awareness is also key. Entrepreneurship shouldn’t be about fame and riches – it should be about doing something you’re passionate about and building the right team to make it happen. That requires knowing your strengths and weaknesses and being willing to share ownership with people that compliment your skills.
What makes them good entrepreneurs? Pete says that his hands-on approach to his business has played a big role in the success of his business. Ben, on the other hand, does not think in terms of being an entrepreneur. He says “I’m doing something I love that presents a continual challenge and forces me to learn something new every day. I give it my all because I enjoy doing it.”
Can anybody be an entrepreneur? Yes, but not everybody should.
Shane, S. A. (2010). Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Work Life. New York: Oxford University Press
Ernst & Young. (2011) Nature or nurture? Decoding the DNA of the entrepreneur. Report retrieved from http://www.ey.com/GL/en/Services/Strategic-Growth-Markets/Nature-or-nurture–Decoding-the-DNA-of-the-entrepreneur