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New Study: America Needs More Entrepreneurial Role Models

New research out of the Kauffman Foundation reveals shocking numbers of Americans have never heard of your entrepreneurial heroes.

Given just how obsessed the media is with Silicon Valley titans, you could be forgiven for thinking that entrepreneurship is plenty glamorized at the moment. Surveys show young people aspire to start their own thing and just everyone thinks being a founder beats being an executive.

But according to a new study out from the Kauffman Foundation, startup mania actually hasn’t spread that broadly in the population. Sure kids in Mountain View and New York may worship Steve Jobs for his entrepreneurial accomplishments, but take a wider sample of Americans and something surprising happens, nearly half haven’t even heard of the guy, Kauffman reports:

The poll asked 1,000 Americans aged 18 and older if they have heard of five extremely prominent entrepreneurs. The results are likely to shock you:

The findings reveal not only moderate to low awareness of entrepreneurial figures, but in some cases differing perceptions of who is an entrepreneur to begin with.

Among survey respondents, Steve Jobs was the most recognized, with 52.8 percent overall awareness; Oprah Winfrey was next at 38.9 percent, followed by Walmart founder Sam Walton (38.1 percent) and Thomas Edison (33.3 percent).

Elon Musk, CEO of growth companies SpaceX and Tesla Motors, was recognized by only 12.9 percent of respondents - less than the 24.7 percent who had heard of "none of the above."

For comparison, 96 percent know who Marilyn Monroe is. Given the outsized impact of these people on the U.S. economy, this relative lack of awareness is troubling, according to Paul Kedrosky, Kauffman Foundation senior fellow. "Because entrepreneurs in general, and particularly 'growth' entrepreneurs whose ventures create the most jobs, are so important to the economy, these findings point to a need for role models that encourage entrepreneurship among both genders," he said.

What else can the readership of take away from this research? Perhaps the findings should serve as a healthy reminder of just how easy it is to work within an echo chamber. If you’re an entrepreneur who often socializes with fellow founders and reads regularly on business issues, of course you’re going to have business ownership on the brain. But that doesn’t mean most people out there have the same obsessions. Entrepreneurs have to be more thoughtful about promoting their work -- and their products -- and not get lulled by the hype in their immediate circles.

Did these findings surprise you?

Last updated: Nov 20, 2013


Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

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