“You are born an entrepreneur. The rest is just a question of revealing your hidden talent.” That, at least, was the view expressed by French businesswoman Aude de Thuin last month when accepting the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the World Entrepreneurship Forum in Lyon.
Given de Thuin’s track record of creating commercial ventures that tap into social trends, including one of Europe’s most successful direct-marketing firms and the influential Women’s Forum, it is tempting to believe her.
But I don’t.
It’s an age-old debate, of course—when it comes to succeeding in your chosen field, what really counts: nature or nurture? I don’t think there is much argument that Usain Bolt was born to run, or that Michelangelo was a natural with a paintbrush. Are all those essential qualities, such as vision, opportunism, technical ability, resilience, and creativity, hard-wired into you in the womb? Or does the real work start once you come kicking and screaming into the big, bad world?
The reason the debate seems to go back and forth is that, for every example on one side of the argument, there’s another to balance it out. Proponents of the nurture theory might point out what a liberal, encouraging family environment can achieve by citing Orson Welles, the theater and cinema wunderkind who at the tender age of 26 made what many critics still think is the best film ever produced. Nice try, say the nature brigade, but what about John Lennon or Bono, who seemed to do quite nicely, thank you, despite such challenges as losing a mother early or having a violent or absent father?
But what about in business? This is where I scratch my head and say that the so-called entrepreneurial gene pool gives way to the realities of life. For me, the entrepreneur is a product of his or her upbringing, social values, pivotal life moments, dire straits and, of course, the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. After all, isn’t it in the university of life that we develop our attitude to risk-taking; our desire to emulate other entrepreneurs, overturn moments of loss, or capitalize on flashes of inspiration; or simply the need to find a way to pay the bills at the end of every month?
Even dyslexia, a condition shared by many successful entrepreneurs—including Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Charles Schwab and Ikea’s Ingvar Kamprad—is increasingly believed to be as much about nurture influencing reading problems as it is about nature.
So I’m not even sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle, particularly when it comes to success in the commercial arena. Even if we are born with certain talents, a little help to develop them never goes amiss. Which gives an unprecedented opportunity to business schools to help develop the next generation of creators both of wealth and of social justice.
Given that it’s hard to find a business school that doesn’t purport to teach entrepreneurship these days, could they really be the catalysts to create the next wave of Zuckerbergs, Bransons, or micro-credit pioneers such as Muhammad Yunus?
Take a look at India, for example. Over the past 20 years there has been a mushrooming of business education in the country, to the extent that it now has one of the largest MBA populations in the world. And at the same time the cachet of traditional careers in the law, medicine, and civil service appears to be ebbing. Indian entrepreneurs are now the new Bollywood stars. Could the two trends possibly be connected?
Some pretty heavyweight international organizations seem to have been persuaded that management schools (or at least their professors) can actually contribute to new business growth rather than just talk about it. For example, Alain Fayolle, an entrepreneurship specialist at E.M. Lyon, was drafted into Tunisia following the Arab Spring by no less a body than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to advise the government on how to use local entrepreneurs to get the economy back on track.
There is a reality check, of course. It seems to me that if you are expecting to learn in an MBA classroom how to set up the next Apple, you’re likely to be very disappointed, unless you’ve already got the drive and talent to do it. Which is why there are still far too many starry-eyed B-school graduates who should have stayed in their comfortable big company niches, and who consequently fall flat on their faces when confronted with the reality of getting a new venture off the ground.
What you should expect from a business school (and what you should be actively looking for) is the sort of practical support that I think has much more impact than any academic theory. Access to alumni and guest speakers who have succeeded (and just as important, have failed) at setting up a new business; incubators that provide access to investors and experts as well as Wi-Fi and a coffee machine; and networking events such as the World Entrepreneurship Forum, where you can get advice, guidance, and good old-fashioned inspiration.
All these could bring out your inner entrepreneur. Just make sure you really have one in the first place.