Saturday, September 23, 2006

Are Entrepreneurs born that way?

A recurring assertion is that Entrepreneurs are born... the implication is: "if you don't have the DNA, you really shouldn't even try." It is a variation on the "nature" or "nurture" argument, that has been applied to genius, homosexuality, addiction and many other traits that make people special, unique or different (depending on your perspective). I find this all too deterministic, and inconsistent with the idea of personal freedom. I have not doubt that people are wired differently and grow up differently... but I don't think this determines what they will do or how well they will do it. And I think that part of the fun of life is trying different things and finding out what you are the best at. I'd hate to have that rely on a genetic test I took when I was a kid.

Recently, Brooks Mitchell, who is indeed an entrepreneur and a fun guy, made this argument in the Northern Colorado Business Journal. Brooks proudly asserts that some Johns Hopkins scientists had even discovered an "entrepreneurial" gene. The implication was that he had it, and was damn happy to be one of the special few (roughly 15% have it, I guess).

A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Paul Light (who I don't know, so I am not sure if he is an entrepreneur or a fun guy) indicated his concern with a variation of this thought pattern in the area of Social Entrepreneurship. While I don't know Paul, he seems like a thoughtful guy, and he has done a lot of research on social entrepreneurs. He asked, in effect, if we aren't setting the bar too high to only look for these high energy "changemakers" (a not so veiled reference to Bill Drayton's approach at Ashoka).

Ashoka screens its entrepreneurs based on their track record, looking for clues of entrepreneurial spark at a young age. I am not sure if they think it is in the genes, but they certainly seem to believe that "nurture" plays a role. I don't know Bill Drayton either, but he too strikes me as a very bright guy, and he has an excellent track record of choosing these Changemakers and supporting them personally.

As far as I know, Ashoka doesn't do a "genetic test"- they instead look at a person's history, starting when they are young. And, I think they understand that the passionate changemaker isn't enough to change the world... part of what they try to do is put that person into a network so they can pick up that "synergy/energy" from others. The "changemaker" is the start... not the end. In effect, the spark that may start a wildfire of change. So, I think they have the business model for supporting these individual changemakers down.

But is that it? I can't believe (and I doubt that Ashoka believes) that this is it- there are only several hundred changemakers in the world. Their model achieves impact, and a strong and growing network (see below). There is more. I know (and work with) changemakers that are not Ashoka fellows. I expect innovation to spring from teams and networks, who have observed these individual social entrepreneurs and build on their success. Already, the replication of solar panels, microfinance, cell phones and human powered irrigation technologies/business models is in evidence in BOP markets. "Fast follower" may not just be a strategy of the traditional entrepreneur, but the social one as well.

My view is that while it may sell some Money magazines, the solo entrepreneur is an American myth. Think about it, was it just David Packard or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs? ... No they had partners and teams in the early days. The "solo" entrepreneur just doesn't synch with my experience. As an entrepreneur and an investor, I am always looking at the team. Sure it may have the visionary leader, but often there is this cool synergy between the founders. The energy of the group exceeds the individuals. While solo entrepreneurs may exist, I think they are vastly outnumbered by entrepreneurial teams, both in traditional entrepreneurial ventures and in the social sector.

Peter Drucker and Amar Bhide are some of the seminal thinkers on innovation and entrepreneurship. Just because they did their work several years ago doesn't mean it isn't relevant to this discussion. Both emphasize that innovation and entrepreneurship are hard work and hustle. The invention/idea isn't enough. It is the getting it out the door... hiring employees, getting investors, negotiating with vendors and distributors. It is getting others to "buy in" (or as we sometimes morbidly say "drink the Kool-aid"). Sorry, but hard work and "playing well with others" is not genetic. Neither is the incredible persistence I see in successful entrepreneurs.

The value equation of the network business model, where additional customers/participants add value geometrically, applies as well to social entrepreneurs. It is still a pretty small group of changemakers out there (particularly when you think about all the change that is needed!). No need to do "genetic testing" or exclude people because their childhood lemonade stand didn't do an IPO. Nope, what we need to do is provide support, encouragement, role models and education to those who want to make a difference. They then need to make the choice to pursue their passion with persistence. Entrepreneurship, in the end, is a choice... and a difficult one.

Dr. Mitchell can do a genetic test on the leaders of the companies he starts or funds. But not me. I am going to talk to them, talk to their network, observe what they do, see how they respond to assistance, how they interact with others, and see how they build value with the resources they have. I want to see what choices they make as they strive for major changes in markets or society. And I will still make mistakes. But a few are going to have a big impact... that is what keeps me going.

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