Personal Journey as an Entrepreneur: Is Entrepreneurship Born or Taught?
On many occasions during my career, I have been asked the question, “Is entrepreneurship something you are born with or can it be taught?” I wish I could provide a simple answer to what turns out to be a very complex question. The simplest answer to the question of whether entrepreneurship can be taught is yes AND no. I know, this may seem like I’m avoiding the question, but bear with me. Because of the intense interest in this topic I have decided to share my thoughts from over 40 years of hands-on entrepreneurial experience.
First, let me address the “No” answer and demonstrate that entrepreneurship has to be a part of us. For me, the concept of entrepreneurship and the feeling of not going along with the norm were an integral part of my mind and psyche since my earliest memories. I couldn’t tell why I thought differently and dissatisfied with being a part of the mundane and commonplace daily life happening around me. I began working early in my teen years and quickly found that the jobs I was given bored me quickly. This created a sense of frustration and lack of fulfillment with my jobs that went on for years. Even while attending college and after graduation I felt the same way. I had no idea what I wanted to do next. I knew I wanted to find a career that I was passionate about and so I decided to pursue a career in engineering. I hoped that this field would appeal to my technical mindset.
My first professional job was in a large corporation in New Jersey. I found the job security and compensation comforting, but I soon found myself bored with this job as well. This dissatisfaction continued until I moved to California in my early 20s and took a job with a small company in San Jose. I was immediately inspired.
Remember, I moved to California and left a secure employment with a large corporation and great benefits for myself and my family. However the culture of this small company had an amazing influence on me. It helped me to recognize and understand some of the issues I had been dealing with regarding my career, my job satisfaction and my long term goals, issues that I hadn’t realized were trapped in my mind. I began to understand the meaning of entrepreneurship.
The company I had joined was started by a young man in his thirties, who seemed to be excited about what he was doing every day. He didn’t work to make money. For him, every day seemed like a party, and I was being paid to participate. Somehow we managed to be productive, and the clients liked us and loved our founder. This was an extraordinary change from the East Coast corporate world in which I had started my career, where 2,000 employees went to work in the same building, worked for eight hours, and then all lifted their the heads at the same time, rising from their cubical, waited for the same elevators, then raced to the parking lot to leave at exactly 4:30PM.
A few years later, I began a new job with a large company in Sunnyvale that was encouraging Intra-preneurships. This was an opportunity where I could help develop innovations within the corporate infrastructure of the company. There was nearly no financial risk, and the opportunity made sense for me, my wife and our two young children. This was a wonderful opportunity to learn about many aspects of leadership and to be accountable for decision-making. During this process, however, I wasn’t able to experience the real risks and rewards of true entrepreneurship. But my goals became clearer during this experience: I wanted a role where I could make a difference and see my contributions lead to positive change. It seemed that time was passing quickly, and I knew I needed to break away from this predictable, mundane working environment.
During this period, I read about many success stories of others who were able to take risks by moving out of the corporate world and who realized their dreams. I wanted to meet as many of these successful entrepreneurs as I could. So I started attending local entrepreneurial programs I became the chairman the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Santa Clara Valley and quickly discovered many inspiring entrepreneurs with inspiring stories about their lives and experiences. Nearly all of these entrepreneurs attributed their success to the nurturing relationships and supportive environments they had experienced during their professional journeys. I had already experienced many unexpected twists and turns of life. I knew that there would be countless risks and roadblocks along the way but I also knew that “if I wasn’t willing to take risks, then life would take them for me, and so I should take charge of my life now.”
The lesson I learned through this journey, and which has been shared by others, is that risk affinity or risk aversion is intrinsic to our individual personalities. However, the environment around us can support and enhance what is an integral part of our being. I am not a psychologist, but my association with Palo Alto University, one of the most prestigious psychology university in the United States, has given me the opportunity to learn about and to discuss the matter of how psychology plays a major role in who we are and what we can do.
I began and learned about the process of entrepreneurship alone but along the way I associated with supportive mentors and friends who helped along the journey. There are so many elements to being a successful entrepreneur, and each one has to be learned through experience. None one of these elements is sufficient alone. Rather it is the sum of all these elements that makes an entrepreneur successful.
Once I started my journey and saw that my innovation was going to make a difference, the intrinsic aspects of my disposition played an enormous role in my achievement. My passion for seeing ideas through to completion drove me towards success. My organic approach took me in many different directions, and the journey was longer than I expected. And I learned through mistakes. I connected with experienced people and I hired people who complimented my skills. This approach lead too many challenges along the way and it took longer to develop than I would have liked. But it has helped to make me the successful entrepreneur that I am today.
Now let me address the “yes” answer that entrepreneurships can be taught.
Today we can find innumerable universities and colleges across the globe all which entrepreneurship programs and that teach entrepreneurship either as an independent course or part of a larger curriculum. The many skills that successful entrepreneurs need are taught in these institutions of higher learning, and there are different levels of courses offered in the areas of finance, business, management, marketing, team building, creative thinking, organizational behavior, venture financing, law/regulations, etc.
Universities create an environment where students can safely “test to fail.” This is critical to the entrepreneurship process. Students connect with others students and mentors to create prototypes and work to launch their start-up ideas.
Here is a short list of some of the programs that are available to entrepreneurs in universities in the US and abroad:
Innovation Labs – Some schools provide facilities where students and inventors can share their ideas through tangible models. These labs serve as launching pads and an environment for creativity with workshops that combines theory and practices.
Mentors and Advisors – Experienced entrepreneurs are able to connect with students to share their knowledge and experience with team building, product development, financing, sales, and partnership formation and exit strategies.
Venture Financing – Many venture firms have seed and first round funding set aside for student start-ups. These same venture firms are also connected with other sources of financing and can help with subsequent rounds of funding.
Startups/Incubation Space – Space to nurture ideas from inception to prototyping while building teams, protecting intellectual property, licensing and working through product launch.
Internships – Opportunities for students to work in environments that inspire entrepreneurship. These include working with leaders of startups or fast growing companies that promote innovation.
Tours Of Silicon Valley – There are organized tours for students from around the world to come and visit the companies that made a revolutionary change to our way of life worldwide. During their visits, they hear from inspirational leaders, see them in action and listen to lectures about how things work in Silicon Valley.
These programs are critical for the success of entrepreneurs and are readily available in many of the best business schools. This type of knowledge and support greatly enhances the likelihood for success.
I’d like to finish with a few more thoughts about the character of an entrepreneur. The character of an entrepreneur is not always measured by how much money he or she makes. Actually, not everyone wants to be a billionaire, which is good because the odds of that happening are slim. Entrepreneurs thrive on innovation, challenges and creativity. Classic innovators are those people whose radical viewpoints are progressive and help to disrupt the status quo of business and life for the better.
Almost every article ever written about entrepreneurship suggests that it's not for everyone. These articles go on to list attributes that many successful people possess as the traits commonly associated with great entrepreneurs, such as a strong work ethic, persistence, persuasiveness and discipline. For 25 years, I have studied entrepreneurs and discovered that what contributed to their incredible success was not what society typically considers assets. People like John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Oprah Winfrey didn't achieve greatness by possessing the traits and following the narrow path recommended by management gurus. Here are some great pointers from Richard Branson that complements these idea and supports the answers I’ve provided.
Don't believe everything others say about you or how they label you. Maybe your alleged liabilities are really assets. Here are 12 signs many people might consider a liability, but which can actually be indications that you are meant to be an entrepreneur.
1. Hate the Status Quo – It doesn't make sense to you that something has been done the time-honored way with no explanation why. You are not someone who wants to just go through the motions or sit by idly. Nor do you like following the pack.
2. Easily Bored - You find yourself easily bored, and others start viewing you as a problem. But nothing is wrong with you except that you are bored with activities that aren't up to your abilities and aren't challenging. That's why you hated most of the classes you ever attended. Bill Gates dropped out of college to become one of the richest men in the world.
3. Fired from Jobs – You're too creative for your own good when it comes to working for others, and you may have some history, as I do, of losing jobs. Being just a cog in the wheel is very difficult for you because you want to create something others can be inspired by and contribute to.
4. Labeled a Rebel - You know that greatness resides outside the lines of conformity and don't think that policies, laws and regulations apply to you. You have been described as a rebel and rule breaker and would defy gravity if you could.
5. Resist Authority - You have a lifelong record of resisting authority from your parents, teachers and bosses. You don't go along with the agreed upon norms of the group or community in which you work and live.
6. Ready to Improve Everything - You always see how you could do things better. In addition, you are opinionated and freely give your two-cents about ways things can be done better --even when you're not asked.
7. Bad at Making Small Talk - You have difficulty making the kind of small talk that so many people get comfort from. This social pattern of relationship and rapport building seems like a waste of time to you and makes you uncomfortable.
8. Bullied in Your Youth - You may have been heavily criticized, picked on and even bullied as a child or teenager. This has caused you to be driven to excel and to prove to the world that you are indeed a force to be reckoned with.
9. Obsessive - You may have been labeled obsessive/compulsive because when you get started on something you have difficulty letting go. Don't let anyone convince you that this is a disease or deficiency. All of the great entrepreneurs become completely immersed in their vision. Howard Schultz stuck with Starbucks even when his family tried to persuade him not to.
10. Scared to Go Solo - The entrepreneur in you is scared of going out on your own—and also terrified of not doing so. This fear is so common in our society because we've been conditioned to think that entrepreneurship is much riskier than getting a "good job." The reality is that there is instability in both.
11. Unable to Unwind - You can't go to sleep at night because you can't turn your thoughts off. An idea may even manifest itself in your dreams. The next morning you find yourself still consumed with that idea, distracting you from the job you're supposed to be doing.
12. Don't Fit the Norm - You have always been a bit uncomfortable in your own skin. Until you get used to the idea that you are in fact different from most people, it could prove to be a problem--or exactly the motivation you need to acknowledge the entrepreneur screaming to get out.
In conclusion, entrepreneurs are both born and made. Each of us may have some of the traits that I’ve described above. It takes some degree of effort to discover and enhance your trait. But entrepreneurs must also learn from teachers, mentors, advisors and from trial and error the strategies and techniques that will make them successful innovators and business leaders.
Palo Alto University (PAU) is located in Silicon Valley and offers academic programs in psychology, business, and entrepreneurship. The B.S. Psychology of Entrepreneurship program, which is taught completely online, is designed for students who wish to pursue careers in entrepreneurial areas, either as entrepreneurs themselves or to develop an entrepreneurial mindset in whatever career(s) they pursue.