The Sunday edition of the Times contained a thoughtful piece by Rachel Bridges on whether entrepreneurs are born or made: whether they alight naturally in this world or whether the influences around them as they are raised are principally responsible for their entrepreneurial talent.
You may think this is just a self-indulgent debate. But it is not. The importance of entrepreneurial effort to the recovery of the nation cannot be overstated. The successful exploitation of innovation and thus the rise in productivity upon which the wealth of the world rests, depends on entrepreneurship.
If it is a natural talent, and thus inherently in short supply then we should be scouting for talent at an early age and streaming that talent into an educational programme that develops that talent. Like the sports farm systems, great football players would grow up being trained to exploit rare natural talents. We have an exemplar of that sort of system in Peter Jones’ National Enterprise Academies that seek to isolate young budding entrepreneurs at 16 and teach them in special hothouse schools.
If it is not an inborn talent and is an outcome of how we raise our children, what we teach them to aspire to, how much we teach them to aspire at all, how we teach them to see the world around them and what they might do about it; then of course the ghetto-ization approach of Peter’s Academies becomes a misguided activity at best and an opportunity lottery for the few winners whilst actively denying any opportunity to the rest.
Even worse, if one believes that entrepreneurship is born and it turns out to be the opposite then we forestall looking into and trying to understand what elements of “nurturing” have played the greatest role. If the dogma is, that the Sun circles the Earth then there is no role for understanding gravity.
The current score, if the popular media are to be believed and the general mythos appreciated, is that entrepreneurs are a special breed, and implicitly born not made. We highlight how they are mis-fits and never fitted in and we regale ourselves with tales of their learning difficulties and poor performance in school as though an education and an entrepreneur were paradoxical.
Yet, after two years and training over 7,000 people on the principles of starting a new business and trying to make them believe they can; I fundamentally believe that entrepreneurship can be taught.
The argument that not everyone has the temperament to be an entrepreneur does not wash with me. Denying people the understanding of the principles of self-employment and how the core economic system works and how they can leverage it to their own advantage seems a harsh consequence and further forgets that teaching someone is not the act of propagandizing. To teach them the principles of business mean giving them the clear headed understanding of risk and reward. Thus it diminishes the likelihood that they will take a stupid risk, it doesn’t increase it.
More to the point, teaching entrepreneurship means empowering people at a young age with ambition, desire, and self-belief. These can be expressed in a myriad of ways. You need aspiration to be a great artist, scientist or entrepreneur. And nothing stops someone from combining them all.
The signal failure of this debate is what it forestalls: it keeps us from enquiring into what the most effective means of teaching entrepreneurship are, it means we don’t ask what the predicate capabilities are that we would want to encourage, it neglects the practical support that people need on a long and varied journey.
It leaves the most important driver of the success of our nation and the world to accident, speculation and idle articles on the back pages of the Sunday Times. Just like the UK began to achieve Olympic gold medals when it put in place the coaches and infrastructure to support our athletes between Olympics and finally put to rest the myth of the gentleman amateur; so too we must put to rest the invidious notion that we cannot create great entrepreneurs. Our future rests upon it.