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