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Are entrepreneurs born or made?

It’s a common topic for group discussions and MBA interviews. ‘Entrepreneurs are born not made. Discuss.’ says the moderator and the shortlisted candidates (who’ve never had any exposure to entrepreneurship) take off on a passionate and aggressive spiel. If you’ve ever see the MTV Roadies audition rounds, you can visualise what’s happening.

Unfortunately, the evaluation process encourages and incentivises applicants to take a clear (often, black or white) stand. Even more ironic is the fact that these guys who are fighting hard to make a point will never take up entrepreneurship after they complete their MBA. Read this post –> MBA Entrepreneurs: Why many bschool grads may never launch a startup.

So we thought it might help to know the views of someone who has been a successful entrepreneur for a long time. Cambridge MBA and entrepreneur Neeraj Agarwal (who first got a dhamakedaar introduction on our blog here –> Please come back to India. Your country needs you) is back. In this new series on entrepreneurship and startups, he will share his experience and knowledge with aspiring entrepreneurs.

Are Entrepreneurs born or made?

by Neeraj Agarwal

Some very strong arguments have been made from both the camps of this decades old debate. The ones who believe that entrepreneurs are born cite examples of several high profile entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or our very own Dhirubhai Ambani all of whom were school dropouts and went on to build large corporations. Apart from the fact that many of them became successful without receiving any formal training, a lot of them also displayed entrepreneurial traits from childhood and had started their first venture at a very early age.

Entrepreneurs are born not made

As a child, Dhirubhai Ambani set up a stall to sell bhajias at the village fair to supplement the meagre earnings of his family[Ref 1].

While still in high school, Steve Jobs started selling ‘blue boxes’ that would allow you to place free calls (let’s not get into the legalities of that), to fellow students[Ref 2].

Richard Branson started a youth-culture magazine at the age of 16.[Ref 3]

Most of those with an innate desire to create their ventures are very headstrong, driven, filled with energy, flooded with ideas, extremely passionate, are risk takers, gregarious and persuasive.

According to John Gartner, author of ‘The Hypomanic Edge’, the condition that defines their unique personality traits is called hypomania, a term defined as “a mild form of mania, often found in the relatives of manic depressives. Hypomanics are brimming with infectious energy, irrational confidence, and really big ideas.

They think, talk, move, and make decisions quickly. Anyone who slows them down with questions “just doesn’t get it.” Hypomanics are not crazy, but “normal” is not the first word that comes to mind when describing them. Hypomanics live on the edge, between normal and abnormal.”[Ref 4]

Given these arguments one can easily be forgiven for considering that all entrepreneurs are born and not made.

However, for every Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or Dhirubhai Ambani there are several others who transformed from being employees.

Entrepreneurs are made not born

According to an Ernst & Young report ‘Nature or nurture? Decoding the DNA of the entrepreneur’,[Ref 5] out of 685 entrepreneurial leaders surveyed, more than half described themselves as “transitioned” — meaning that they had some experience outside of the world of entrepreneurship before launching their ventures.

The report further states that ‘although there are notable examples of entrepreneurial leaders who left college to form hugely successful businesses, such as Bill Gates of Microsoft or Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, these are very much in the minority.’

Among the survey respondents, some form of business experience was considered a vital foundation that increased the chances of future entrepreneurial success and about 45% of the respondents said they had started their first venture after the age of 30.

The conclusion that can be drawn from these two countering arguments is that just as there are so many different entrepreneurial ideas, there is no one route to entrepreneurship. While there are some who are born with a desire to create ventures and have inherent qualities that make them successful entrepreneurs, there are others who learn and acquire them along the way.

So what are those qualities that make a successful entrepreneur and can they be learnt? Before I answer this question I would like to share my own entrepreneurial story.

How I became an entrepreneur

I come from a community that is known for its entrepreneurial talents. It is said that business runs in the blood of Marwaris and almost everyone who belongs to this community has a rags to riches story. Over a hundred years ago, my own grandfather travelled thousands of kilometres from a small village in Haryana to a remote hill station called Darjeeling which not many had heard of then.

Road conditions were tough and he had to face several hardships before finally reaching his destination. He started his new life as a bookkeeper at a local business, but very soon saved enough to rent a small shop and start his own garment retail business. The rest as they say is history.

He invited various other family members from the village in Haryana to join him and expanded the business, establishing the family as an integral part of the community. All five of his sons, including my father who despite being a qualified lawyer followed on his footsteps and diversified the business further.

Growing up in such an entrepreneurial environment, one is bound to be influenced. But somehow I never once thought that I would get into the world of business. I was never the one to sell ‘bhajiyas’ or start my own magazine while in school.

In complete contradiction to the family tradition, I took up Science instead of Commerce, studied computers and started working as an IT professional. However not too long into the job and I saw a gap in the market for computer education in smaller towns. I quit my job, found a couple of co-founders, took up a franchise of India’s leading IT education company and went on to create a network of one of eastern India’s largest IT training centres.

I subsequently did an MBA from the University of Cambridge, mentored start-ups and am now in the process of launching my next venture called Tea People which aims to use tea as a medium for bringing a positive social change.

So while I do believe that entrepreneurship can be taught and learned over years of experience, most successful entrepreneurs do share some common personality traits and are usually blessed by a supportive environment. For me, the supporting factors were the guidance, encouragement and mentoring I received initially from my father and later from a senior business partner too.

What are the personality traits of successful entrepreneurs?

It is tough to have a general list. But the personality traits that led to my success are:

Persistence and tenacity: When I first approached the IT training company whose franchise I wanted to take, they refused by saying that their model wasn’t suited to smaller towns and that they didn’t want to dilute their brand image.

I took this as a personal challenge. I conducted a market research, joined hands with two very senior business professionals and went back to them. This time they agreed. However, this wasn’t the only hurdle. There were countless others who tried to dissuade me by saying that big brands didn’t have a place in smaller towns and that people wouldn’t be willing to pay the higher fees commanded by the big national players.

I simply ignored all the negative comments, followed my instincts which had been further calibrated by my research and proved all of them wrong.

Passion: I was immensely passionate about bridging the IT divide that existed between cities and smaller towns. It was this passion that drove me to reach out to as many smaller towns as I could. We ended up becoming a master-franchisee appointing sub-franchisees in a large number of very small towns and becoming one of the largest franchise groups in the area.

Ability to spot opportunities: When I was doing my computer course in Kolkata, I saw that a large number of young people enrolled there had come from smaller towns and were spending a lot of money and time doing nothing else but a part-time computer course. I immediately spotted an opportunity for taking those courses to their doorsteps and filling a gap in the market.

Appetite for risk and personal belief: While I don’t consider myself to be a high risk taker, a certain appetite for risk is necessary to be a successful entrepreneur. I wouldn’t have been able to leave my job and get into a completely uncharted territory if it wasn’t for my ability to take risk.

However along with the risk appetite I also had a strong belief in self. I have always believed in my ability to define my own destiny. This personal belief in a way helps me overcome any fear involved in taking up new challenges and putting myself in what most would consider a risky situation.

So, are entrepreneurs born or made? Who cares!

In conclusion, it doesn’t matter if you have never started a business before, or have started and failed, or come from a non-entrepreneurial family or background. If you feel you might have some of the above traits, have a business idea or are simply attracted by the prospect of starting out on your own, just go ahead and do it. You may even surprise yourself by discovering talents in yourself that you had been unaware of.

In case you want to explore, there are Masters in Entrepreneurship available for those seeking a formal training. You may even want to explore these ideas of kicking off a business after an MBA .
References: 1, 2, 3, 4 

If you have been going back and forth about launching your startup, stop bothering about questions like whether entrepreneurs are born or made…or dropped from the sky by scientists carrying out genetic mutation experiments.

Stop thinking. Roll up your sleeves and DO something. Neeraj has been a mentor to many startups. Interact with Neeraj on our entrepreneurship forum to get advice and feedback on your startup. Also read a day in the life of an entrepreneur after MBA for inspiration.

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

4 thoughts on “Are entrepreneurs born or made?”

  1. Hi ,
    That was a inspirational and informative post. I would like to know one thing. In what way did the MBA from Cambridge useful. Was it really worth the time and money for someone who directly wants to engage in entrepreneurship.

  2. @Jose: Neeraj is taking questions on the enterpreneurship forum. Can you please post there with more details about yourself and your career plans. His response would be more specific.

    Btw, I also graduated from Cambridge. So if you’d like some perspectives, I moved into entrepreneurship on a full-time basis only after 5 years, after I paid off my education loan and when I had a pretty good idea that my entreprenuerial plans.

    There are constraints to launching a startup immediately after graduating. Here’s a post that throws more light on it: Why many bschool grads may never launch a startup

  3. @Jose – Thank you for your comments and apologies for not getting back sooner as this post is slightly dated and I don’t monitor it anymore.

    I concur with the comments made by @Sameer. In fact I too spent around 6 years after my MBA in the corporate world before I set out to pursue my own entrepreneurial venture and for reasons not too dissimilar to those of Sameer’s.

    But to address your question, I will break it up into two parts:

    The first part of your question is about the usefulness of an MBA from Cambridge. I personally found it quite useful. To start with, it gave me the tools and the knowledge needed to start a high growth business. (Prior to Cambridge, my knowledge of business was restricted to lifestyle businesses only.)

    Cambridge is particularly strong on Entrepreneurship. In addition to the Entrepreneurship modules which I found quite good, the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL) is quite active. They run various programmes and events that give you an opportunity to learn directly from successful entrepreneurs and also build a network that extends beyond the business school and could even include Business Angels and Venture Capitalists. There have been instances of MBA students teaming up with techies from other parts of the university through the CfEL and creating extremely successful businesses.

    I found my first job after MBA through the CfEL. So yes, I did find the Cambridge MBA useful. In addition to the knowledge, networks and the confidence to start a high growth business, I also benefited from the Cambridge brand name as it gives me the extra credibility, something that comes quite handy when reaching out to new contacts.

    The second part of your question is specifically about people looking at starting their own venture straight away into their MBA and the justification for the money and time committed into it. Sameer has mentioned about the constraints of launching a startup immediately after graduating. While a lot of us do face those constraints and decide to postpone our entrepreneurial plans, there are many who have delved straight into it. Arun Muthirulan, a classmate of mine built his business idea and the network while doing his MBA and then plunged into the entrepreneurial journey straight after the programme with the people he met while doing the course. He is now running a successful business called Accelerator India, based out of Cambridge. Was the time and money doing an MBA worth spent? I bet it was for him.

    There are other examples of students who have launched their ventures straight after their MBA and most of them used the Cambridge MBA to develop their business ideas and to build the network or even put together a founding team. So while there are success stories abound, just as it happens in every other sphere, I am sure there must be those who did not quite achieve what they had set out to. The bottom line is that many of the benefits of doing an MBA are intangible and you cannot necessarily put a figure or use an ROI calculator to justify that investment of time and money in doing an MBA. If you already have a well developed business idea and a team and your only motivation do do an MBA is to get some direct benefit, then you may want to think twice about it and see if that money and time is better spent on the business itself.


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