Blind Men and an Elephant- Nature Versus Nurture and Entrepreneurship

One of the best ways to get a debate going into the entrepreneurial world is to throw the “Nature versus Nurture” hand-grenade into a conversation. The question is whether you are born with innate entrepreneurial talent or whether you can be taught to operate like an entrepreneur.

Taking Sides
Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, Jason Calacanis, founder of Mahalo.com, and Mark Suster of GRP Partners, have all weighed in on the nature side – you’re born being an entrepreneur or you’re not.

Vivek Wadhwa, Director of Research, Center for Entrepreneurship at Duke, the Kauffmann Foundation for Entreprenuership and others have the opposing view – you can teach people to be entrepreneurial.

The Debate
This Tuesday, April 20th Stanford’s Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students will be sponsoring a panel discussion on Nature Versus Nurture and Entrepreneurship. Mark Suster, Vivek Wadhwa and Patrick Chung, Partner at New Enterprises Associates will be debating. I’ll be the moderator (referee).

Since I get to ask questions but not talk, I’ll weigh in with my two cents here.

What’s An Entrepreneur?
Most of the nature versus nurture conversations start by defining the characteristics of an entrepreneur: risk taking, tenacity, resilience, confidence, competiveness, belief in ones self, ability to construct a vision, reality distortion field, etc. The conversation then goes into making the case whether these can be taught or you’re born with them.

It’s Nature – My DNA is Much Better Than Yours
The “it’s all about nature” point of view is pretty simple. You got the skills you were born with hardwired in your DNA.

There was a point in my life when it felt good thinking that I was born with skills that few others have. Heck, if there is one defining characteristic that all entrepreneurs do have it’s a healthy ego and the feeling that their skills are special and unique. How depressing to think that others could be trained to do what I could do.

Everything about my own career says I was born with it.

It’s Nurture – Of Course We Can Train You
On the other hand, there’s something un-American to think that you cannot rise above your genes and your station in life. The idea that the U.S. is an egalitarian society based on “All men are created equal” is what makes the country a magnet for so many. The nurture camp believes that with hard work and the right education anyone can learn to be an entrepreneur.

As I got older I realized that whatever I was born with was shaped by thousands of hours of my environment – a chaotic upbringing, learning how to work in a war zone, multiple mentors throughout my career, etc.

Everything about my own career says I was nurtured by my environment.

Blind Men and an Elephant
One of the common threads through the blogs on the Nature/Nurture subject is the tendency of the writers to take their personal experience and extrapolate it to others; the “I knew I was an entrepreneur since high school – therefore everyone else is” to make the nature case. Or the “My parents were in business, or I had a great set of mentors and teachers” to explain why nurture is correct.

This “debate” feels like the story about the blind men describing the elephant – what seems an absolute truth may be relative due to the deceptive nature of half-truths.

Perhaps the Answer is Yes to Both
Over the last decade I’ve taught over a 1000 students in entrepreneurial classes and a good percentage of them start companies. They’ve come from all backgrounds and walks of life, ethnicity, class, and type of schools. An interesting proportion come from dysfunctional families yet the majority had a normal upbringing. My students from foreign countries beat the long odds to make it from their distant country to my classroom, while others were born in New York and flew here first class. Some were hard-wired from an early age knowing they wanted to kill it from day one. Others saw the light first go on as PhD students as they sat in my classroom.

VC’s might fund one of these types or another (started their first company in high school, top schools versus not, men versus women, etc.) but it’s not clear that there’s any evidence other than their selection bias that one is better than the other.

Just some passionate opinions stated with certainty.

Nature Versus Nurture versus Culture?
Local culture and environment is the last part of the debate that rarely gets mentioned and may be of equal importance.

Thirty plus years ago when I came to Silicon Valley Asians and Indians in high technology were a small minority, and almost none were running companies or in venture capital. Were there no Asians or Indians with entrepreneurial DNA in the U.S.? Were they not being nurtured? Or was there something about the (venture capital) culture of the valley at the time that didn’t think they could be entrepreneurial founders or investors?

Are we going to look back in 30 years and say the same about why there are so few woman entrepreneurs today?

Today Silicon Valley, New York and Boston are magnets for entrepreneurs in the U.S. But is every entrepreneur with great DNA working in these locations? Is the rest of the country truly bereft of any remaining talent?  Or is it something about those locations (network effect, risk capital, nurturing network) that makes entrepreneurs in other parts of the country start small businesses or even spend their lives in a 9 to 5 job? (I’ve written and presented a bit on this subject.)

Or look at Israel. They have more public companies on the U.S. NASDAQ stock exchange than any other country. (In fact, 3 times all other countries combined.) Is it their DNA?  Nurture? Or something about their local culture and environment that makes for more entrepreneurs per square mile than anywhere else?  (Hint – Unit 8200 and the Talpiot program.)

And how do we explain China?  China today is a hotbed of entrepreneurship. But there were no large-scale entrepreneurs in China in the 1960’s. Is it possible that no one in China had any entrepreneurial DNA in the 1960’s?  Or no entrepreneurs were being nurtured in China in the 1960’s?

Change the external culture and environment and entrepreneurship can bloom regardless of its source – nature or nurture.

The reality seems to be that there are multiple paths to becoming an entrepreneur.

Nature, nurture and culture.

Lessons Learned

  • Entrepreneurs are born not made. True.
  • Entrepreneurs are made not born. True.
  • Entrepreneurs can’t flourish without a supportive culture and environment.

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15 Responses

  1. It’s both: nurture and nature–different types. I’ll take nature over nurture any day.

    Give me capital and a team and I’ll make something happen. Give me nothing but my drive and I’ll figure it out. The nurtured entrepreneur won’t sign up for the second option.

    I think looking at the tech world is the wrong place to inform the debate. I see plenty of entrepreneurs who’ve been groomed for the position–get the MBA, do the stint at a consulting company, raise plenty of cash, and start a company relatively safely–and do decently.

    The difference is the natural entrepreneur likely skipped grad school. Probably started a business in high school or college. Took a series of frustrating jobs and was fired from almost every one, likely for trying to improve things and seeing opportunity in the changes.

    Then he (she too) started a company out of hope, drive, and fear of a life led by others. Made mistakes, had success, refined, adjusted, and made it work.

    And then did it again, and again. Has the scars to prove it.

    The nurtured entrepreneur? I doubt they’re out starting 3, 4, and 5 companies. One is enough, and then maybe it’s a C-level position somewhere.

    The difference? Pain tolerance, risk tolerance and perseverance.

    Look to the poor to really understand entrepreneurism. In my town, which lacks capital, network, and nurture, has little going on in the tech world.

    But Champ opened Champ’s Barber School, where you can get a $5 haircut by one of his students (you don’t mind if you have little hair, like me). After he opened it, we started seeing new barber shops spring up all across town.

    Wow, everyone exclaimed, there must be a lot of people who wanted to be barbers.

    My take: there are a lot of people who want to make their own breaks, but lack the education and opportunity to get there. The barber shop is one of a few paths they can take in a town with a 25% poverty rate.

    Have fun moderating–I doubt you’ll be able to stay on the sidelines, though.

    • And I thought Steve’s local cultural evidence was a show stopper, then you roll in Charlie with a wave of nature.

      Maybe that drive isn’t just something that you’re born with, but a point you come to based on life?
      -When you can’t stomach one more day doing things that contradict a rational business sense you never knew you had
      -when you desparately need to create or match something of value with the needs of people around you
      -when you can’t stop an urge to express a creative solution in your own way
      -when you’ve had enough of the bull shit we all swim in, and decide to actively mold the world

      great comment on an excellent post

  2. I always thought these kind of debates were kind of silly. Frankly, I side with Yoda on this one – “Do or do not (start a company). There is no try.”

  3. These are continuous variables that are not mutually exclusive, so I would call “nature v. nurture” a false choice. That said, I do believe that nature is where it starts and is the only required element.

    If it were all nurture and culture then the entrepreneur’s vision would only extend as far as those who shared that nurture/culture. He or she must be able to see more, and that can’t come entirely from outside. Nature provides the vision that makes the entrepreneur believe something is possible that others can’t see. With enough clarity of vision you’ll pursue your goal in the face of incredible adversity, and without a vision there’s nothing to pursue.

    Nature helps sharpen that vision. It not only provides a better picture of the destination, but the path itself as well. Knowing some of the risks, pitfalls, twists and turns helps encourage us to take the trip.

    Culture helps ease the path by providing the ‘aid stations’ along the route. It’s much easier to start down a path knowing that if you get lost you can ask for directions and perhaps get a bite to eat.

    On that topic, I love that you brought culture into the discussion. This component is frequently overlooked (particularly by some who have made it and self-servingly recraft their own history.) I have no evidence to support it, but I suspect culture has the greatest marginal impact on determining success. Drilling down on your Israel example would make a fascinating academic study I’m sure…

    In my own (limited) experience, the most successful entrepreneurs seem to have a reasonable balance without over-weighting one element or the other.

  4. As you see with most children – We seem to be all born creative and show a flare for entrepreneur-ism – it might be a question of how much of it we lose as we grow through nurture, culture etc, and how quickly if at all you can get that state back if at all.

    On the culture front – another interesting dynamic is not just localized culture such as being in the bay area, but historical culture. Are there a lot of entrepreneurs in places like the US or Israel because of historical cultures related to persevering over adversity, does capitalism vs socialism in different countries play a part… or structures like the caste system which might limits ones ability to be be entrepreneurial?

  5. Dear Steve,
    As an Israeli, your example is not really showed the all picture. I can explain in detail in a guest post about Israel entrepreneurship culture.

    Best,
    Dror

    • Dror, I would love to hear what you have to say from the perspective of an Israeli. Recently I’ve been really fascinated by people starting business’ in countries other than US and Canada.

  6. Steve,

    Your observations here seem like common sense, but I guess for many people, common sense doesn’t always cut through the fog of self-congratulatory analysis.

    Great questions.

    Gogo

  7. They have mapped the whole Human Genome and not found an entrepreneurial gene. So it is not genetic. However, that is not to rule out the fact that there are genetic traits which would help those seeking to be an entrepreneur.

    Risk taking is a classic example of something that has some “nature” instincts as well as the obvious “nurture” life experiences (whether in the structured environment of a college lecture or from unstructured environment from attending the “school of hard knocks”).

    I have a challenge to both sides of the debate:

    – For those arguing “natural entrepreneurship”, show me the genetic makeup of a successful entrepreneur.

    – For those arguing “nurture entrepreneurship”, show me the course curriculum to become a successful entrepreneur.

  8. What a great post! I think about this topic a lot as I interview entrepreneurs for my Examiner column. I’ve seen some born with entrepreneurial spirit and some who learned it along the way. In the end, I think passion and confidence are huge factors in the success of entrepreneurs, no matter how they came by the skills to start and run a business.

  9. Here is a link to a blog about “Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made”

    http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/21/literally-born-entrepreneurs/

  10. How about tips for nurture ?

    (I do not want to get into nature Vs nurture, as i believe nurture has a important role)..

  11. I agree with David Binetti. I find the choice somewhat faulty.

    I’m definitely not a nature type entrepreneur, yet I started a company (that unfortunately did not go anywhere… off to the next one). I’m very risk friendly, but I’ve never used it to create a company in younger years. I’m now 31 and I wish I started earlier with this quest.

    Recently I’ve been more and more bothered by the amount of time we spend to argue about entrepreneurship. It seems that there is an elite of so called entrepreneurs that have made it in the middle and everyone else wants in.

    I am German and the translation for the German word for “Unternehmer” is: entrepreneur, contractor, businessman, enterpriser, mercantilist, operator, player. I feel that it seems to be very trendy to be an entrepreneur (although many mistake it with being a freelancer + a few helpers). What I have learned through my first business is that I need to be a businessman first and foremost.

    I think rather than using the word entrepreneur we should use the term businessman more often. As for me it helps me focus on the task at hand.

    Please correct me if I’m totally wrong though.

    Cheers, Hans

  12. Living with ambiguity – fantastic. Yes, I think entrepreneurs can be made, and can be born – but from where I sit it’s easier to help someone with natural entrepreneurial talent, effectual reasoning, and a promethean temperament to be an entrepreneur than someone who isn’t. It’s also much less stressful for the “entrepreneur” if they’re naturally suited to it.

    There’s a lot to be said for helping people tune into their natural talents and maximise them, and I’ve helped many a so-called entrepreneur by helping them realise how their talents, skills and personality can be better applied elsewhere.

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