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Are entrepreneurs born or made?

This is an interesting but never-ending debate. Is having the necessary mindset, drive and personality genetic, or can these traits be learned?

Diane Hall


Young woman working to build her career.

At 10 years old, Richard Branson grew Christmas trees to sell. Aged 9, Jo Malone, the candle-making giant, was already dabbling with fragrances, making her own perfume from flowers in her garden and grated soap. Lord Alan Sugar had his first job as a greengrocer’s assistant when he was just 12, after building himself a bicycle to ensure he got to work on time. By the time he left school, he was out-earning his father.

I recently read of a 9-year-old in Kent who has already built up a small business from mowing his neighbours’ lawns, his aim being to save enough money to launch his own tree surgeon business when he grows up.

Though there are probably as many middle-aged and older people launching their own enterprises, were these people destined to be entrepreneurs from a young age? Can the desire to work for yourself simply develop or come out of nowhere?

Many of my family and friends are people content to work for someone else. That’s not to say a lottery win wouldn’t see them quitting their jobs, but they view self-employment as a hassle, something that would likely be more trouble than it’s worth. They enjoy shutting the door on their role at the end of the working day and the security of a regular wage. They have no desire to venture into the unknown, to be the one to make every decision, to put in many, many hours before they see any hint of success.

And yet others thrive on these elements. They see the potential that can come from being their own boss. The chance to out-earn their old bosses and to see how far they could go. To be in control, to be the decision-maker. They are highly motivated by change and challenge.

Jodie Cook, an entrepreneur and Forbes’ contributor, explored the qualities of young children who went on to become successful business owners. She found they all held six significant traits.

The first concerned their exposure as a child to change and disruption. They had learned the ability to be resilient by the time they launched their business and didn’t see change as something to fear or to be protected from. The ability to see things from the perspective of others was another plus. Certainly, when marketing a product, this is a gift. It also enabled them to be open to new ideas and innovation.

Looking down at a Passion Led Us Here sign on a tiled floor

Looking down at a Passion Led Us Here sign on a tiled floor

The urge to experiment, an innate curiosity and being independent were also vital components of born entrepreneurs. Lastly, having aspirations was an element Jodie believed to be perpetually useful; the desire to push on, to constantly drive things forward, to not want to accept the current status quo, to want to mirror their role models’ success or exceed it.

Looking at that list, I believe some of those attributes can be learned; however, I also believe it would be difficult to fully embrace continuous change if you’re risk averse by nature, for example. It’s not impossible to overhaul aspects of your personality and change learned behaviours but I can see why people would consider these tasks insurmountable if they’ve spent decades doing the exact opposite.

If we believe that these traits are within entrepreneurs from the off, why does it then take some people until their later years to do something about it?

For many, it takes the right opportunity (or enough dissatisfaction of their current situation) to see them throw caution to the wind and launch their enterprise. In later life, they will also have more financial security behind them, which makes the decision to leave their job a lot easier. Confidence may be a factor, or securing the relevant skills and experience needed. One reason often cited by older entrepreneurs was of their retirement looming. Whilst they were happy to enjoy life on their schedule, rather than their bosses’, they didn’t want to give up working altogether. Launching their own business afforded them the best of both worlds.

But are these people ‘entrepreneurs’, or simply carefree freelancers/sole traders?

The dictionary definition of an entrepreneur is: ‘a person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.’ This would certainly apply to those setting up their enterprises later in life.

However, if I type the definition of a successful entrepreneur into Google, this is what comes up: ‘Being a successful entrepreneur means more than starting new ventures every other day. It means the right attitude towards a business and the determination and grit to achieve success. A successful entrepreneur has a strong inner drive that helps him or her to succeed.’

Surely, if a ‘strong inner drive to succeed’ is inherent, you would expect someone to have made the leap into self-employment much earlier than their more mature years. You would also expect their business being the catalyst towards achieving specific goals, rather than something that suits their availability and energy levels.

Maybe there is truth to the claim that entrepreneurs are born, not made.

What’s your view? Tweet us at @intheknowemag.

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