Guest Columnist

Column: Can an entrepreneur be taught?

January 2, 2014 

Every startup and every entrepreneur is different. The same set of skills that might make one successful could send the other spiraling into failure. But lately, I’ve been wondering if entrepreneurs are born or made.

I have 9-year-old twin daughters who couldn’t be more different. So life has already taught me how misguided generalizations can be.

But in about nine years, those twin daughters will be graduating from high school, and we’ll have to make a decision about their post-secondary education. For the first time in as long as I can remember, maybe ever, the benefits of college may not outweigh the cost.

Like a lot of other Triangle transplants, I came here to take advantage of a huge reduction in tuition for essentially the same engineering degree. I made this move because I hypothesized then what I know now – that what I learned in college wouldn’t have much of an impact on my entrepreneurial career.

Today, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of six-figure debt being run up over four years of higher education with slim job prospects waiting on the other side. So while I’m saving for my kids’ education, I have to wonder if it isn’t a better idea just to seed-fund their first startup with that money.

They get to fail twice, then they’re on their own. I know that sounds harsh, maybe even unreasonable, so I’ve recently spent a lot of time trying to prove that entrepreneurism can be taught.

The arguments I have with my peers on born versus made are varied, long, and usually nuanced. Younger entrepreneurs are convinced entrepreneurism is something people are born with, like a gene. The older ones, the entrepreneurs who have been doing it for 30-plus years, are more of the mind that experience in best teacher.

I’m somewhere in between, but I think it’s worth a shot to try to distill that experience into teachable facts. There’s a curriculum in there somewhere.

So I brought the argument to the person I knew who knew the most about it. Ted Zoller is probably the most well-known name locally in entrepreneurial education, the Director of the UNC Center for Entrepreneurship and a Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation.

“In my years of working with students, I can clearly validate that all students benefit from exposure to entrepreneurial skills and strategies,” Zoller said. “And I believe entrepreneurship can be taught, but not all students are entrepreneurs.”

In fact, the whole process might not be about teaching the entrepreneur, but rather discovering the latent entrepreneurism in those that have it.

“I uncover the ‘founder gene’ in only about 5 percent of the students I encounter, and only a small number of these students have fully expressed this gene and have acted on their entrepreneurial predisposition,” Zoller said. “A great joy for me is when I open this door for them through teaching, but explore with them how they can realize their full potential. That’s where education and entrepreneurship intersect, and where the real magic happens.”

Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jproco or online at joeprocopio.com.

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