What really sets entrepreneurs apart from everyone else? It's not their resourcefulness, imagination, ability to foresee trends, or their belief in their own ideas, according to a recent piece on Quartz. It's the mouthful of silver spoon they were born with. "The most common trait among entrepreneurs is access to financial capital," the piece notes, citing a wide range of research.
No wonder. It costs an average $30,000 to start a company and the vast majority of start-up funding comes from personal assets and investments by family or friends. In addition to start-up costs, founders have to run their ventures for some time without drawing a salary. So it's easy to see how having a substantial bank account, wealthy friends or relatives who are willing to bet on you, and maybe a family or spouse who'll support you for a while makes starting a business much more feasible.
So, yes, whether you have money of your own, or rich relatives to lend you theirs, can make or break your chances of starting a successful business. That's the bad news. The worse news is: It's not just about the money. The start-up world favors those who come from privilege in many different ways, and access to capital is just one of them. Consider:
1. College gives entrepreneurs a big boost--if they attend an expensive, elite school.
How many high-profile startups started life at prestigious universities? You can't count them all. Facebook came from Harvard. Google and an infinite number of others came from Stanford. Airbnb's founders got together at the Rhode Island School of Design. And on and on and on.
The ballooning cost of college, especially at elite universities, puts attendance at schools such as these beyond the means of most nonwealthy students. And yet these schools have shown how effective they are both at turning out full-blown startups and at fostering the friendships, connections, and contacts with both professors and investors that often lead to successful ventures after graduation. Less-well-off people who attend state schools, community colleges, or no college at all are already way behind the entrepreneurship curve before they've even hit their 20s.
2. Entrepreneurs from wealthy families tend to have the right connections.
You can't overstate the power of networking, so it matters whom you have in your network. If your family is moneyed and influential, there's a better chance that you know, or can get an introduction to, the kinds of moneyed and influential people who can give you a great start. They may become investors, or introduce you to investors, but, once again, this isn't only about money. The right connections can give you great advice, and introduce you to successful people in your field who can provide insider tips and even to potential customers. If you don't have those kinds of connections, you're two steps behind before you even get started.
3. If you have the wrong background, you're unlikely to be accepted into the startup tribe.
There's a reason Silicon Valley entrepreneurs tend to look kind of…cloned. You know who I mean: White men in their 20s and 30s, fit but not muscle-bound, wearing jeans, T-shirts, hoodies, and often glasses. They went to an expensive university, ride bikes or drive plug-in electrics, and play a mean game of Ping-Pong. A couple of months ago, an ad for a Woodside, California, group house called Startup Castle drew ridicule for demanding that applicants for its coveted spaces work out at least 15 hours a week, wear makeup no more than twice a week, have no more than one tattoo, and only rarely listen to songs with explicit lyrics. (The resulting media storm drove Startup Castle to move to an undisclosed location in Los Altos.)
You don't need Startup Castle to know that if you drink Bud rather than craft beer, prefer Nascar to tennis, and like pickup trucks better than hybrids, you're going to be a bad cultural fit in the start-up world. If you think that won't affect your chances for success, just ask the nonwhite, nonmale, nonyoung entrepreneurs who've been there.
4. Coming from a wealthy background makes it easier to take risks.
There's an obvious side to this: If your family and friends have money, then pouring all of yours into a startup is unlikely to put you on the street if it fails. But that's only part of the problem. Research shows that fearing or accepting risk is a behavior people learn, and people who've grown up in households that are always one paycheck away from eviction are less likely to have learned to take risks with their money.
They're also less likely to have the kind of confidence it takes to bet on yourself in a big way. I first read this article when my husband emailed it to me. I'm the daughter of a psychiatrist and grew up on Manhattan's Central Park West; he's the son of a postal worker and grew up in decidedly blue-collar Middletown, New York. This is why, he argues, I've been a successful entrepreneur for most of my life and, despite trying, he never has. Not only did my parents pay for college, they encouraged me to dream big. His parents encouraged him to get a job in civil service or a large corporation, and then stay put.
How do we fix this?
Money isn't the only thing that bars the unwealthy from becoming entrepreneurs, but money may be part of the solution. In the form of scholarships, seed funds, and incubators targeted at those who don't come to the entrepreneurial world equipped with bank accounts and wealthy relatives.
Beyond that, an attitude change is needed. Not only to encourage nonwealthy people to start their own businesses, but also to encourage the world of lenders, advisers, and investors out there to welcome entrepreneurs who don't look and think like themselves. I can't say I've seen a lot of eagerness on anyone's part within the funding power structure to do that, though, and that's a shame.
A couple of months ago, Farhad Manjoo published a scathing piece in The New York Times that claimed the hottest tech startups these days aim to "help people on the lowest rungs of the 1 percent live like their betters in the 0.1 percent." They do things like deliver gourmet meals to people with plenty of money but no time to cook, or shuttle the children of professional parents to ballet and soccer practice at $12 to $15 a ride.
Fubu is a great company that demonstrates the good things that can happen when entrepreneurs don't fit right into the Silicon Valley mold. But "For Us by Us" can mean the opposite too: Upscale services provided by entrepreneurs from well-to-do backgrounds and aimed at customers whose demographics mirror their own.
Until we learn to create a startup culture that welcomes everyone, that's the best we're going to get.