Are entrepreneurs born or made?

A study of twins finds that genetics may influence why some people start businesses. But then again...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The question of whether entrepreneurialism is an inherent characteristic or one that can be taught has bugged scientists and business professors for many years. Now it seems as though there is some evidence (albeit derived from statistical analysis rather than test-tube research) to suggest that genetics do influence why some people become entrepreneurs and others do not. Although we still have no idea how, exactly…

A group of academics including Dr Tim Spector, of Kings College in London, and Professor Scott Shane, of the Weatherhead School of Management (currently ranked as the 95th best MBA school in the world by the FT – out of 100) have been studying groups of twins to try and work out whether entrepreneurial tendencies are inherited. Since identical twins carry 100% of the same genetic material, they make excellent case studies (fraternal twins are also thrown in, to bump up the numbers).

And according to the researchers, the study concluded that 37% of whether or not someone became an owner-manager came down to their genes – presumably because the other 63% could be ascribed to environmental factors like education and upbringing. They also claim to have identified a clear genetic component in the correlation between certain personality traits – like extroversion, openness to experience and sensation-seeking – and the tendency to become an entrepreneur.

Now to be honest, we’re not entirely clear what this is supposed to mean. We assume they’re suggesting that whether you translate certain character traits into running a business is genetic as well as environmental. But how they managed to separate these two (particularly since this includes US data, where there’s arguably more of an entrepreneurial culture to complicare matters) we’re not quite sure.

Behavioural genetics is undoubtedly a fascinating area - and we applaud the academics' ambition for trying to see what impact it has on entrepreneurship (if nothing else, proof that it can be learned would be great news for business schools). But we're not entirely sure that these results actually prove anything very much - the answer to the 'born or made' question basically remains 'a bit of both'. And given the difficulties in splitting out the constituent influences that affect a person's decision-making as an adult, we're not convinced that any study of this type will ever be conclusive.

Equally (and perhaps more significantly), even if we do accept that there is some kind of genetic element to entrepreneurship, we’re still no nearer to knowing how it works. The academics’ next big idea is to examine ‘single nucleotide polymorphisms’ in twins – i.e. places where their DNA differs in just one respect – to try and identify the genes involved. But for the time being, we remain unconvinced...


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