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Are entrepreneurs destined or nurtured to start businesses?

Brian O'Connell

Can entrepreneurism be taught? Or is it buried down deep in the DNA of business owners?

Actually, there is at least one school of thought – literally – that says you can teach someone to be a business owner.

The key is putting that “someone” on the right academic track. According to a new study by researchers at Babson University, the evidence is “overwhelming” that if you steer collegiate business students toward at least two core entrepreneur courses, that can “positively influence” that student to go on to become a startup business owner. (The study is titled, “Does an Entrepreneurship Education Have Lasting Value? A Study of Careers of 3,755 Alumni.”)

Okay, the idea that you can teach entrepreneurism isn’t entirely new. A 2002 study from the Harvard Business School shows that if you can convince college students they have the right stuff to run a business, then becoming an entrepreneur is a natural career path.

When asked if it was possible to teach someone to be an entrepreneur, here’s how Harvard Business School professor Howard H. Stevenson answered the question:

For many years, the message from the School and from the faculty was, "Why would you waste your time and talents doing something as foolish as starting a business?" Almost all our students are capable of being entrepreneurs.

Still, even if people have innate musical talent, you can't necessarily teach them to become Beethoven. But if they have that innate talent, then they probably would still benefit from piano lessons. There are some things that in fact you can help people learn. They can learn either at the school of hard knocks or by coming to class and building an understanding.

If you presume that the vast majority of our students are opportunity-driven and achievement-oriented, smart and hardworking (traits they've demonstrated to get here in the first place), then what we do is to give them some tools and techniques to improve their odds of success.

The Babson study takes the issue to a newer, deeper level. It shows that by taking the “steering” approach listed above, and by adopting other curriculum measures like emphasizing the “right stuff” mantras, business owners can be made and not born. It’s the core class work that counts, Babson says; that’s more important than having students write their own business plans.

The study, comprised of 3,755 Babson College alumni who graduated between 1985 and 2009, was conducted by Babson College professors Julian Lange, Edward Marram, and William Bygrave and Ajay Solai Jawahar M’11 and Wei Yong M’11.

In it, the authors say that it’s time to rethink the time-honored ways of training future startup business owners.

We now have excellent empirical evidence that it makes a difference. We think that entrepreneurship should be taught not only for the production and training of entrepreneurs but also to help students decide if they have the right stuff to be entrepreneurs before they embark on careers for which they may be ill-suited.

At a more abstract level, we believe that entrepreneurship should be taught to every business student because it is the very origin of all businesses—after all, there would be no business schools if there had never been any entrepreneurs! Aristotle is reported to have stated that we do not understand a thing until we see it growing from its very beginning. That alone is justification enough for why every business student should take a basic entrepreneurship course.

There are caveats. Taking only one entrepreneurship course may significantly reduce the odds of a student going on to run a business. Two or more core courses are needed. Study researchers say that’s because some students take the one course and decide that entrepreneurism isn’t for them.

Also, it doesn’t really matter if a student’s father or mother is an entrepreneur – that isn’t in the “genes,” the Babson study states. In fact, the higher the student’s family income, the lower the odds of him or her becoming an entrepreneur.

The study makes for fascinating reading, and may help healthcare business owners figure out why they wound up where they are – at the helm of their own shops. Whether they realize it or not, they may have been trained to arrive at that destination all along.

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