One of my favourite movies, Trading Places, poses the age-old question: nature or nurture? That is, can a person’s behaviour and aptitudes be explained by their genetic makeup, or is it due to their upbringing? In the film, the wealthy Duke brothers bet “the usual”—a dollar—on whether Billy Ray Valentine, a homeless panhandler played by Eddie Murphy, can trade places with Louis Winthorpe III, a Harvard-educated blueblood who runs the Dukes’ commodities brokerage. Despite his humble beginnings and lack of education, Valentine is clearly an entrepreneur, while Winthorpe was obviously groomed to run a business. Ultimately, they pair up to seek revenge, corner the orange futures market and wipe out the Dukes.
Lately, I’ve asked myself the same question about entrepreneurs: are we born or bred? Do genetics determine our characteristics, or can we be taught entrepreneurship, as some MBA schools would have us believe? I believe I’ve discovered the answers—and I think they have exciting implications for all of us.
I started by thinking about the hundreds of entrepreneurs I’ve met through my involvement with entrepreneurial networking organizations, in researching my book and, of course, from running several companies. They fall into a few categories. We all know the proverbial “born entrepreneurs.” They’re the people who always have something on the go. Usually, they’ve been that way since they were kids, with their lemonade stands and snow-shovelling enterprises.
My friend Lorne Merkur comes to mind. At 13, Lorne started printing T-shirts in his parents’ basement and selling them to friends at school. Thirty-five years later, his Toronto-based company, AdWEAR, offers a choice of more than 400,000 promotional products. Along the way, Lorne earned an engineering degree and an MBA. Lorne has never had a “real job” and is probably unemployable in the traditional sense of the word.
People like Lorne exhibit three outstanding characteristics: self-reliance, perseverance and courage. I’d argue that the same traits belong to people in the second category, which I call the “made entrepreneurs.”
I’m one of them. I was groomed by my parents to become the leader of the family business. I went to Upper Canada College, attended an Ivy League university and eventually became a lawyer. I practised law for five years before starting my first venture, a real estate syndication business. But merely starting a company didn’t make me an entrepreneur. Because my father provided a financial safety net for the company, I didn’t exhibit self-reliance and courage to any special degree. It was more as if I had a regular job, but at a company that I owned.
Then came the real estate crash of the early ’90s. The syndication market evaporated, leaving me without a business and few job opportunities in the sector I knew so well. Suddenly, I had to fend for myself. More accurately, I felt compelled to fend for myself. (Having two children under the age of three and a mountain of personal debt with no income was a great motivator.) I quickly learned what it took to survive, and I started another business, despite the odds. It seems that I possessed the entrepreneurial traits of self-reliance, perseverance and courage all along. I just needed the right circumstances to trigger these instincts.
If entrepreneurs can be born and “made,” in a special sense of the word, can they also be taught? MBA classes have been my favourite audiences on my book promotion tour, and I’m impressed with the number of programs that have popped up to teach entrepreneurship. Let’s face it—entrepreneurship is hot these days! But as I speak to these students, I can’t help but think that I’ve never met an entrepreneur who learned how to be one at school. There is no doubt that learning about finance, human resources, business processes, marketing and the like can only enhance an entrepreneur’s ability to survive and thrive in business. But you can’t teach courage, perseverance or self-reliance in a formal educational setting.
That’s not to say you can’t in a way teach yourself entrepreneurship. In fact, you increase your courage, self-reliance and perseverance quotients almost by osmosis—specifically, by exposing yourself to your fellow entrepreneurs. For instance, I come back from my annual Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (YEO) forum retreats with more passion and ambition than I had before each trip. It’s as if the attendees subconsciously feed on one another’s confidence and energy.
You can do the same by joining entrepreneurial networking organizations such as YEO, Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) and the Innovators Alliance (in Ontario), or by attending events that are heavily populated by entrepreneurs, such as MIT’s Birthing of Giants program. Furthermore, in conversing regularly with other entrepreneurs, you can learn more about business than you ever could in a classroom.
Billy Ray Valentine was a quick study when the Dukes taught him the commodity business. But it was his innate entrepreneurial instincts that enabled him to successfully mete out his revenge. Looking good, Billy Ray—you’re an inspiration to us all!
Jeff Dennis is a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Secutor Capital Management Corp., a private wealth-management firm in Toronto. He is also co-author of Lessons from the Edge: Survival Skills for Starting and Growing a Business. He can be reached by email.
© 2005 Jeff Dennis