Is entrepreneurship in the genes

         Is entrepreneurship in the genes or are entrepreneurs made?

Whether entrepreneurs are born or made is a complex question which various researchers, scholars and authors have tried to answer from their own angle.  Not everyone is a risk taker and not all people have the ability to dream big. So, what decides whether you will be an entrepreneur or remain caught in a traditional job? There are several factors that research has highlighted which define entrepreneurial spirit and ability. Several institutions claim to provide degrees in entrepreneurship but if education could cultivate risk taking then everyone would like to become an entrepreneur. It can give you knowledge and skills but whether you have the ability to take risks or not cannot be changed by simple education. Views vary in this regard too and some believe that education can help bring out the passion which is commonly associated with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. Till some years ago, leadership was the most interesting and widely discussed topic in corporate and academic circles and everyone had developed a keen interest in it. In the recent years, it is entrepreneurship that has replaced leadership and become a hotter and more widely debated and researched topic.

Current discussion presents entrepreneurs as people who are not perturbed by failures, who have the guts to bear risks and who do not believe in being a part of the herd. It makes them look like special people who have special abilities and skills. Research has put forth several important traits associated with entrepreneurship. However, the question that whether entrepreneurs are people with special genes or whether they are the people who learnt it with time still perturbs people’s minds.  If entrepreneurship is not everyone’s job then there must really be something special in the genes of these people that enables them to take big risks and take the rough terrains. The topic reminds of Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken”.  Most people take the road the herd takes and very few take new paths.

Scott Shane, a professor of entrepreneurial studies at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University wrote in his 2010 book, ‘Born Entrepreneurs, Born leaders’ that it is the genes that decide that whether a person will have his own business and even how much he will earn. In other words he suggests that while some cannot be with the herd the others are born to work in the mailroom. However, diverse views exist and while some researchers believe that entrepreneurs are people with special genes and abilities, others think that you can help people discover their passion by teaching them entrepreneurship in the classroom. In the light of these views, both points seem logical that entrepreneurs are born and entrepreneurs can be made. One thing that is emphatically true is that in this era, entrepreneurship has come as an answer to some major problems. In this era, entrepreneurship has filled major gaps. The world has been through a recession and entrepreneurship was hailed by many as the best method to overcome economic and financial hardships. Globally, small and big entrepreneurs have created millions of jobs for others while also found financial stability in their own lives. Despite all this, the heterogeneous nature of entrepreneurship has given rise to diverse views and points of disagreement among researches and scholars.

An “Entrepreneur” article published online in 2013, records the views of two professors on Entrepreneurship who see it from two different angles. James V. Koch, President emeritus, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va., holds the view that entrepreneurship is something natural and recorded in a person’s genes. Julian Lange, senior professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., believes that exposure to entrepreneurial ideas can have lasting effect on students. James V Koch cites personality studies in this regard and that scientific literature sees personality as interaction of heredity and environment. It underlines the importance of heredity and so some personalities are better suited to entrepreneurship.  However, he too notes that heredity or genetics do not constitute the entire picture but that environment also has a strong role to play in the phenomenon.  Despite that to teach somebody to take risks is not possible and this thing is hardwired in a person’s DNA. Upon being asked that to what extent it is genetics affecting entrepreneurship, he mentions the role of genes is important. Professor Koch also cited the research he had undertaken in this area and that some important traits like willingness for risk taking, tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty were heritable. According to him entrepreneurs have specific traits which are:

  • Ability to deal with uncertainty
  • Ability to take risks
  • Ability of tolerating ambiguity
  • Extreme – tend to flow between very high and very low or mercurial in other words
  • Having strong self confidence but also tend to be overoptimistic
  • Rely extensively on self intuition

Professor Koch thinks that business education can be good for entrepreneurs but it cannot take ordinary people into entrepreneurs or churn an appetite for risk taking in them. Education can provide you knowledge and skills but not change your preferences for risk or change your genetics. More research has accumulated to prove the role of genetics in this area and that some dormant genes can also be triggered by environment. However, to trigger the same genes using education or any artificial method is not possible and it will probably need a decade more of research.

Professor Julian Lange on the other hand believes that entrepreneurship can be affected through education. He cites research which shows that entrepreneurship can be taught. While one cannot simply teach people to be passionate for entrepreneurship, still people can discover their passion in the classroom. He has been teaching for more than 20 years and thinks the ability to become entrepreneurs can be enhanced through education.  Professor Lange conducted a research with two of his fellow professors and two graduate students investigating if entrepreneurial education could have a lasting influence.  The research highlighted that the effect remained long after the graduation.  Taking two or more entrepreneurial courses even positively affected the intention and process of becoming an entrepreneur. With regards to risk taking, he explains it in the form of a continuum starting from people who are very poor in this area to those who are daredevils. Professor Lange himself is an entrepreneur and says he is no daredevil. According to him what is important is to recognize opportunities. When people start looking at things through a different lens, they can recognize what has potential. He says there are several combinations of entreprenurial characteristics that can make a person successful. Professor Lange cites examples from the field of sports that the people who are the most successful are not always the ones who look sturdy. Often they are the ones who have worked hard, overcame deficiencies and known what works and what does not work for them.

Much has been said about entrepreneurship, entreprenurial traits and what inspires these people. However, to grab a complete picture becomes difficult because one or another new trait always comes forth. As Professor Koch mentions, it is not always the genes or not always the environment that affects entrepreneurial behaviour. These are important factors but education has also grown to become important in this era. As Professor Lange highlights entrepreneurs can become better with education and some of the biggest names of his era are known to have studied at the best universities and colleges of this world.  So, it appears while entrepreneurship may be a result of interaction of hereditary and environmental factors, education can also be a catalyst in this area. Moreover, risk taking is important and the potential to take risks can vary from one person to another and simultaneously the ability to identify opportunities is also very important.


Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made? by Jason Daley in ‘Entrepreneur’ 2013