Sandy Kennedy: Are entrepreneurs born or shaped by their habitats?

In 1906, at the age of 76, impressionist Claude Monet completed his masterpiece The Water Lilies having honed his craft over the previous 70 years. Meanwhile, the likes of Andy Warhol and Frida Kahlo were doing their best work 50 years younger in their 20s and 30s. In music, Mozart famously composed his first concerto at the age of five, yet Verdi composed Aida at 56 and other recognised masterpieces at 80.

And what of entrepreneurs – are they born geniuses or developed by the environment they inhabit? Undoubtedly, there are some entrepreneurs who show early promise arriving seemingly fully formed onto the scene, especially those like Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerberg. More locally, Scotland has its own examples of entrepreneurs showing natural ability from a young age.

Rebecca Pick was 19 when she founded Pick Protection, providing safety technology to lone workers. Similarly, James McIlroy raised a $21.5 million Series A round in September for EnteroBiotix, the microbiome business he started at 23. Both Rebecca and James show remarkable wisdom, vision and determination that is beyond their years.

Is it nature, is it nurture? The science is inconclusive. There is evidence that the entrepreneurial skills of divergent thinking and the ability to make connections and see patterns could be influenced by the genetic design of our brains.

Furthermore, a 40-year study by Swedish scientists at the Karolinska Institutet has identified the possibility of a “creativity gene” also linked to mental health. David Rose, the New York-based angel investor, goes further and only invests in those he calls “natural born entrepreneurs”.

There are many studies that show entrepreneurs are likely to be the offspring of entrepreneurs and family businesses owners. A study by BNP Paribas in 2014 indicated that 60 per cent of successful entrepreneurs (62% female, 59% male) come from a family that has a history of business ownership.

However, when you scratch away, the picture becomes messy. The high number of next-generation entrepreneurs could be as much to do with context with them immersed in a culture tolerant of risk-taking, access to learning at the kitchen table from the get-go combined with the availability of funding and other resources to get started. Their eyes are open, the barriers are down and they are primed.

Meta Profiling has developed a psychometric measure that identifies high-impact entrepreneurs, peer reviewed and validated with over 500,000 tests. Meta measures entrepreneurial potential across three broad entrepreneurial competencies: idea generation, execution (getting the right stuff done) and leadership, especially leading other innovative people and teams. It has isolated both broad and narrow traits that are prevalent in high-impact entrepreneurs. The great news is that the narrow traits (opportunism, proactivity, creativity and vision) can be developed through education and experience. Indeed, it discovered that the more ingrained broad traits found in natural entrepreneurs can be double-edged and derailers of success, notably hubris or over-confidence, being mercurial or impulsive, and being dominant which can stifle the creativity of others.

We can do so much more to understand the characteristics of entrepreneurs, getting away from the notion of them as rare, mythical beasts. This debate really matters. It has profound implications for policymaking, investing, education and the culture we want. The risk is that entrepreneurship is seen as available only to a pre-ordained few and unobtainable to the rest. We cannot afford to discourage thousands of potential entrepreneurs, job creators and innovators, the very people Scotland needs now.

We need to democratise entrepreneurship and recognise it is for everyone.

Sandy Kennedy, entrepreneurial optimist

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