Is it possible to learn how to build successful companies and employ thousands of people? Or, are epic job creators like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington born to be successful?
That was the question posed to a group of entrepreneurs at the most recent Serious Business live debate held August 31 at Chicago tech accelerator 1871, sponsored by salesforce.com. The event, a partnership between Inc. and the Kauffman Foundation, was moderated by Inc. editor James Ledbetter. Arguing that founders are born was Tom Gimbel, the founder and CEO of recruitment and staffing firm the LaSalle Network, and Riana Lynn, founder of Foodtrace and entrepreneur-in-residence at Google. Team Made was Dane Stangler, the vice president of research and policy at The Kauffman Foundation and Craig Wortmann, the founder and CEO of Sales Engine and professor of entrepreneurship at University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Stangler made the opening statement. He says he believes that we are born with different characteristics that determine our personality and help shape who we become. "But, that doesn't mean, however, what you're born with is necessarily determinative of what you're going to do and who you are going to be," said Stangler.
He added that while specific personality traits correlate to successful entrepreneurship, so do other factors like number of years spent in school, being married, and family wealth.
"When Craig and I make the case that entrepreneurs are made, we do not mean there is some factory of entrepreneurs that can create them in an assembly line," said Stangler, "but entrepreneurs can be made through their experiences, exposure to entrepreneurship, through learning, through education and through their social networks."
For Team Born, Riana Lynn, founder of Foodtrace, says she realized she was an entrepreneur at an early age and she has seen that more young people are becoming entrepreneurs without formal business training.
"If you look at it genetically, I believe there are entrepreneurs who are risk-averse and they are made, but there are entrepreneurs who are born," said Lynn. "There are ones who are more optimistic, who want to change things, who don't take no for an answer. When you look at entrepreneurs all over the world, you come across people who do not know anything about investment, people who just throw ideas out there, they are the ones who are born. They have no resources and when you look at statistics you can tell true entrepreneurs are born."
After the opening statements, Ledbetter cited a study that found how the most successful entrepreneurs share certain characteristics that are not present in the general population. He asked Stangler: Does the fact that successful entrepreneurs share certain traits prove that entrepreneurs are born?
"Certain characteristics are shared by entrepreneurs, but that doesn't mean these traits account for their success," said Stangler. He explained that the average age of entrepreneurs is 40 years old, which helps prove that entrepreneurs are made through experiences and exposure to entrepreneurship.
Ledbetter then posed a question to Team Born: According to statistics, there are fewer entrepreneurs who are women and people of color. "If entrepreneurs are born, how is it that these characteristics skip massive parts of the population?" Ledbetter asks.
Gimbel, for Team Born, says that the traits do not skip massive parts of the population.
"The opportunity to exercise what's inside of you has skipped over massive parts of the population," said Gimbel. "Society has set up parameters [that prevent women and minorities] from taking these opportunities to become entrepreneurs."
For Team Made, Wortmann cited the work of Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote extensively about the theory that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. "Were the Beatles born with talent? Sure, but if you study them it was those years of practicing in Hamburg for hours and hours every single day that made them the Beatles," said Wortmann. "They didn't wake up at four years old and become the Beatles. They practiced and made themselves into the Beatles."
At this point, the tide began to turn for Team Made. Stangler delivered the uppercut:
"Doesn't seeing entrepreneurs as born strip what is so fun and exciting out of entrepreneurship? A lot of entrepreneurs have a chip on their shoulder because there was an experience that they went though," said Stangler. "As an entrepreneur, wouldn't you rather say that you made yourself through experiences than you were just born that way?"
Gimbel said he agreed with that point but believes entrepreneurialism is an innate ability.
"The ability to build an organization that creates wealth is similar to the ability to create music, or paint a picture; it's a form of art," said Gimbel. "You can teach a person to paint, but Picasso goes for a lot more money than Bob Ross. I think to create is an innate characteristic that is refined over time."
Before the debate, the audience cast a vote on whether they think entrepreneurs are born or made. The first vote found that 54 percent believed that entrepreneurs are born and 46 percent said they were made. After the debate, the vote was evenly split 50-50, so the "entrepreneurs are made" side won--because they changed more minds in the course of the evening.