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Innate talents count the most

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Some say that entrepreneurship is the act of envisioning an “impossible” future and taking “insane” risks to try to make it happen. But essentially, entrepreneurship is all about persistence geared towards a commercial, economic or social goal, which may often entail significant downside risk. In contrast, the act of invention, which has obvious similarities, is more likely to involve systematic trial and error, but relatively little downside or financial risk.

I would say that entrepreneurship may be hard to define concisely, but you know it when you see it. I also subscribe to the view that entrepreneurship stems from individual characteristics and that, generally speaking, it cannot be taught. It requires above all an appetite for commercial risk-taking and an ability to innovate, and not everybody has those innate characteristics.

Other factors also come into play. In my opinion, a “true” entrepreneur, destined for success, also has drive, commitment, listens to feedback and learns from it, and is ready to adapt. It is also important to be appropriately humble, not ruled by ego, and to be steadfast in one’s vision. Of course, such people are also prepared to put in the personal effort needed to reach commercial goals and to maintain their focus on achieving result, not letting distractions get in the way.

Billionaire Ronald Perelman’s recently gave a US$100 million gift to the Columbia University Business School in New York to develop the next generation of entrepreneurs. I would suspect that individuals admitted to this exclusive programme already have “entrepreneurish” tendencies. Therefore, Perelman’s gift will serve more as a catalyst to help those budding, pre-existing entrepreneurs rather than starting with a “blank slate” and training people from zero.

For all the useful skills they offer, no university-level programme on entrepreneurship includes courses on persistence, risk taking, personal sacrifice, personal drive, or ego-free decision making. These, though, are widely agreed upon as key facets for any entrepreneur. Instead, the curriculum is likely to cover topics such as entrepreneurial finance, product design, financial forecasting, and how to pitch to investors. It all helps, but also emphasises that “having good ideas” isn’t really a classroom subject.

But if entrepreneurship can’t be taught, it can at least be moulded – though not necessarily by business schools. For example, the 2010 documentary Lemonade Stories focuses on how mothers have contributed to the entrepreneurial spirit of their sons and daughters. It looks at the cases of Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Industries) and Arthur Blank (The Home Depot) plus five other well-known, successful entrepreneurs and raises once again those questions of nature versus nurture. 

What value then do business schools offer in this regard? I would say they can only teach about entrepreneurship and the steps and processes needed to run a business. The inclination and ability to start something from scratch is more likely to come from your mum than from a textbook. 

Dr Terrill L. Frantz

Assistant Professor of Management and Director of Global Development, Peking University

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