Can You Learn to Be a Successful Entrepreneur?

Once again it’s an age-old question of nature versus nurture: Can entrepreneurship be taught? Do you need to wait until you have some fancy degree or other credentials before launching your startup? What part of being good at home-based, small or other business ownership is science and what part is art?

These are the very questions that experts continue to debate vigorously. And the topic has legs at this particular point in history given that so many young people―the so-called Gen Y Millenials―are interested in starting a business of their own. In fact, according to the Kauffman Foundation, the largest entrepreneurial foundation in the U.S., 54% of them reported they would either like to start a business or that they already had as of late last year. As Jeff Cornwall, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Belmont University in Nashville asserts in a recent USA Today article, “Generation Y is the most entrepreneurial generation ever.”

So is it any wonder―given their ages of 18 to 34―that the question of what part education might play in the likelihood that they will become successful business owners is top-of-mind? Moreover, how can it not be when the number of programs focused on entrepreneurship is at an all-time high? In fact, some estimates claim there are 3,000 or more programs now available in at least two-thirds of America’s colleges and universities. As for the number of online courses and programs, just Google it…they’re practically endless.

With so many options to choose from, where do you begin? What do you need? And is it all really necessary?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to those questions. The jury is out and has been for a very long time on the clear role that formal schooling plays in entrepreneurial success. However, the good news is that there is a large degree of consensus on one very important issue as it relates to the discussion, and it is this…

Formal education aside, nothing beats learning through experience when it comes to entrepreneurship.

Case in point, even the most respected and academically rigorous institutions are placing greater emphasis on small-company-startup internships and apprenticeships as a required part of their programs than ever before. Furthermore, experts agree that, for someone just starting out, finding a mentor―a like-minded, passionate entrepreneurial counselor of sorts who can and is willing to show them the ropes―is critical.

Okay, so that somewhat addresses the nurture question, but what about nature?

Most successful entrepreneurs do possess a number of similar characteristics that seem to be a result of their having been born that way as much as anything else. Relative intangibles like risk tolerance, resilience, intellectual curiosity and an innate and unquenchable desire to learn (even when it might be the hard way) are just a few. These are the things that can’t be taught, right? Or can they?

At what point is our nature every bit as much about how we were once nurtured? When does one blend into the other? A recent TIME article begs that very question.

In it, Eve Branson, Virgin Group-billionaire Richard Branson’s mother, asserts that certain traits that may increase the likelihood of entrepreneurial success are taught to us very early on, not in school but by our parents. In Branson’s case, his mom tells a rather engaging story about how she all but forced him to become less shy and more self-assured with adults than most other kids his age. The story obviously stuck with the article’s author after she heard it some years ago when her son was then seven, so much so that she was inspired to strengthen his communication skills using similar methods. Happily, she reports that, today at the age of 15, her son now operates much “like a Senator” in his exchanges with other people―engaging and confident.

So what’s the final word on the question of nature versus nurture as it relates to entrepreneurship? The answer may be more ambiguous than most of us would like, but it’s the truth…

Successful entrepreneurs are made, and they are born. And it’s just that simple.

For a more in-depth look at this topic:

Click on this March 2012 Wall Street Journal article now!