Are entrepreneurs born or made? Nature vs. nurture debate rages on

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

I’ve long wondered what makes entrepreneurs tick. What clockworks empower them to recognize opportunities, motivate them to succeed and enable them to endure risk? It’s a curiosity that’s yet to be satisfied after 20 years of interviewing entrepreneurs and reporting on their ventures.

Entrepreneurs are no more similar than snowflakes. Individuality constitutes one of the notable attributes of entrepreneurs, in fact. Generally speaking, though, are entrepreneurs born or made? Do their inherited natures or the ways in which they’re nurtured affect the choices they make in life and, ultimately, the results? Or is it both?

It’s not only an interesting question, but also an important one given the essential roles of entrepreneurism and innovation in driving the economy, creating jobs and improving lives. Moreover, the matter is academic in determining how best to promote entrepreneurism through education — at least to the extent that’s possible.

The debate has raged for ages, perhaps since entrepreneurs invented the wheel. The debate has changed in recent years, however, as research has identified what could be various biological contributors to entrepreneurism. Consider these three:

Scott Shane, a professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western Reserve and author of “Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders,” cites research that suggests genetic characteristics influence not only the ability to recognize opportunities and start businesses, but also how much money a person earns. It could be one reason the children of entrepreneurs become entrepreneurs themselves.

Daniel Leiberman and Michael Long, authors of “The Molecule of More,” attribute entrepreneurism in part to dopamine. That’s the chemical in the brain that triggers a pleasurable response when people encounter something new, unusual or potentially useful — or make connections previously deemed unrelated. Thanks again to genetics, entrepreneurs possess “dopaminergic minds” that make them more creative and enable them to channel their energies toward goals.

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder found that people infected by what could be dubbed an “entrepreneurial bug” were more likely to start their own businesses and engage in activities involving higher risks and higher rewards. The prevalence of the parasitic microbe Toxoplasma gondii estimated to infect 2 billion people worldwide proved a consistent predictor of entrepreneurial activity. The parasite is believed, by the way, to reduce the fear of failure.

The research begs some questions: Are people simply the sum of their genes, destined at birth to either work in the mailroom or the boardroom? Or do the lessons people learn and experiences they gain count for more than biology?

Adherents on both sides of the nature vs. nurture debate suggest there’s likely an interaction of heredity and environment.

It’s easy to argue tall people are more likely to succeed in the NBA than short people. That’s a function of genetics and the game. But not all people who’re tall also play in the NBA. Even some who do aren’t successful. That’s a function of not only talent, but also practice and passion.

Composer Wolfgang Mozart was a child prodigy. But would Mozart have become Mozart were it not for the efforts of his father, a musician, composer and teacher who sacrificed his own career to promote his son’s?

Not all entrepreneurs start out as entrepreneurs. Many, in fact, don’t start their own ventures until they’ve worked for someone else. They develop expertise over time and realize through their experiences there could be ways to provide better products or services or do so faster or cheaper. Some people become entrepreneurs after they’ve lost their jobs and either sizable chips form on their shoulders or necessity gives birth to invention.

Perhaps entrepreneurs are just naturally more sensitive to recognizing opportunities when they see them and more willing to assume a certain amount of risk if that’s necessary. But entrepreneurship also is the result of processes, whether that’s formal education or on-the-job training.

One way or the other, prosperity still depends on the lopsided proportion inventor Thomas Edison famously described as 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. The most accomplished athletes, musicians and entrepreneurs are undoubtedly born with physical abilities and talents, but also achieve success in combining education, training and experience with hard work, determination to overcome shortcomings and a genuine passion for their pursuits.

I still don’t know what makes entrepreneurs tick. But I suspect most entrepreneurs are born — and made.

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at or 424-5133.