What Entrepreneurs Are Made Of
I had the awesome experience of being a judge at Australia Post's Regional Pitchfest recently. It's an acknowledgement that so much innovation happens in the regions, but often away from the ecosystems of more urban areas, which can make it harder for emerging entrepreneurs to get the support, advice, funding and whatever else they need.
Totally singing from my song sheet there, and a complete no brainer to say a swift YES when I was asked to take part. (And a sweet side note, I met the awesome MC, Sara Redman from SRA Corporate Change, nearly a decade ago when she and her business partner were pitching in a regional pitch competition I was running. They won, and the rest, as they say, is herstory.)
While I was shooting the pre game breeze in the green room with the other judges the question came up of whether an entrepreneur is born or made, and can the skills be taught. I've been witnessing this discussion for as long as i've been working with and teaching entrepreneurs. I think there is a belief that entrepreneurs are a certain breed, and it takes a special kind of DNA to get that innovative, risk hungry brilliance that has given us so many of the big names of startups. What people forget, is that the Steve Jobs, Elon Musks, Tony Hseihs and Mark Zuckerbergs of this world (we will come back to the gender of this list later) were not born entrepreneurs.
Sure, they were born curious, they were born with an interest in serving people what they wanted, and definately born with a desire to solve problems. But the point is they followed their curiousity. They tried, and tried, and failed, and were ridiculed, and had many a rock bottom. Then one day, after who knows what number of great ideas, they hit the target and boom, the ten year overnight success. History books and the media will track their milestones to success, rather than the breadcrumbs of failure that they were able to follow and eventually find their way out of the wilderness and into the market.
For mine, being an entrepreneur is an inherent quality, and often latent. It takes certain conditions to make it happen, and while for some people these conditions are actively sought out, for others their assembly is an alchemy that ripens and is unable to be ignored. In the petrie dish of an entrepreneurs awakening there has to be an idea, driven by a need or a want, and one that is invariably bigger than the individual in the problem that it solves. There has to be a market that is willing to participate and pay a sum for the product or service that is an order higher than the costs of production. The market has to be big enough to scale, and the idea have scope to iterate in line with the market. And at the early stage there has to be sufficient funding or support to get the idea to an MVP. The entrepreneur has to have the resilience to keep going when their problems seem intractable, they have to be humble enough to ask for help and advice, they have to be brave enough to fight for what they believe in, and vulnerable enough to fail.
The most unlikely people have become successful entrepreneurs when these qualities and conditions kicked in, and the most likely people who superficially seemed to be the gung ho risk taking business type haven't had the mettle when the call came...this time. We have all let opportunities pass us by, for many and varied reasons that were entirely about what we had in our petrie dishes at the time.That doesn't make us unable to execute, it just makes us, as Professor Carol Dweck would put it in her growth mindset way, unable to execute yet.
e can all learn the strategies of being entrepreneurial, and the traditional elements of the path to market, but getting there and succeeding is a much more random journey, and is entirely interdependant. No individual is inherently entrepreneurial, but the conditions arising can reveal that capacity within us.
I find it sad that when I reel off a list of successful entrepreneurs, the names that spring to mind are all male (and also predominantly white, western and middle class.) I challenge you to do the same, and name five female entrepreneurs who have brought a product or service to market, scaled and exited that have the profile of the male entrepreneurs that are household names (being a female celebrity that then has a product doesn't count m'kay, sorry Kardashians). This is as clear an indicator as any that the conditions arising in our society are still ones that favour men when it comes to creating opportunity, enabling risk, making investments, the capacity to work single focussed for months and years to execute, and the dual roles many women continue to play as primary caregiver to families and in support of their communities. The systems of business and power are still patriarchal, and subtly and overtly exclude women. This is reflected in women on boards and in CEO and senior roles and undoubtedly has the same impacts in the entrepreneurial realm.
I believe that the entrepreneurial capacity is available to everyone. And like anything, the desire to achieve and grow is conscious and very very hard work. There is no magic person, just a combination of circumstances that at the time, are impossible to say no to, and ignite your curiousity to the point of no return. Not everyone will be an entrepreneur - and that's a good thing, as every entrepreneur needs a phalanx of wingpeople to help them reach their goals. But we all can, when our petrie dishes have the right conditions arising for our entrepreneurial culture to flourish.